Shwa for Quechua

Quechua, the language of the Incas, is still spoken by 9 million people across the Andes. There's quite a bit of dialectical variation, but on this page, we'll discuss a standard based on the Southern Quechua of Cuzco.

Quechua is currently written in a Roman alphabet, but there are several different versions and none are widely used, although there is a strong movement to standardize around the 1985 system. The main difference between the new system and the older, 1975 system is that the new system offers only three vowels: i a u, while the old system had five: i e a o u. Another important difference is that the old system distinguished poorly, if at all, between Quechua's tenuis, aspirated and ejective plosives (borrowed from Aymará). The old system also used Spanish spellings like hu for w . The old system was basically a pronunciation guide to Quechua for Spanish speakers, using the Spanish alphabet, which is clearly not the right approach for a primary orthography.

Phonemes versus Allophones

However, the true debate should not be about a "Spanish" orthography versus a "Quechua" orthography - it should be about a phonemic orthography versus a phonetic orthography (or more properly an allophonic orthography). Phonemes represent what people think, and are thus appropriate for primary orthographies. Of course, as people pronounce the phonemes, they will produce different allophones based on the phonological rules of the language.

You first had to learn those rules subconsciously when you learned to speak your native language, so that you could understand and imitate what you heard. For example, you had to learn that the word atom is stressed on the first syllable, with the a pronounced as the "short a" from hat. But the second syllable is unstressed, so the o is reduced to a schwa, the sound you make when your mouth is completely relaxed. Then you had to learn that the adjective form of the word, atomic, is stressed on the second syllable, with the o pronounced as the "short o" from hot, while the first syllable is reduced, and its a is pronounced as a schwa.

Then you had to learn those rules again, consciously, when you learned to read and write. You had to learn that the schwa in atom is spelled with an o, while the schwa in is spelled with an a. Those are rules of English spelling, and since English is spelled (morpho-)phonemically, they are the phonological rules in reverse: you know the pronunciation, and you need to back into the phonemes.

But that's not how Shwa works. Shwa spelling is phonologic, so you had to learn to ignore the phonological rules and write words as you pronounce them (or at least to stay conscious of the phonological rules and write the allophones). The big advantage is that you can pronounce words as they're written even if you don't know the phonological rules of the language! And since Shwa is intended to be a universal script, that's important, since foreigners can't learn the phonological rules of every language they need to pronounce. Another advantage is that it is easier to learn a shallow orthography, so that children learning to read and write for the first time are better off with Shwa.

I mention all this because my source for information on Quechua is the excellent Sounds of the Andean languages , by Paul Heggarty. There you will find a long and persuasive presentation of the reasoning behind the new phonemic three-vowel system, a disquisition with which I agree completely. However, Shwa is phonologic, not phonemic, and thus uses a six-vowel system.


The six vowels of Quechua in Shwa are as follows:

i ɛ
u ɔ
æ ɑ

The righthand column shows the vowels as they are written when next to a uvular consonant q qʰ q' or h (either before or after). We also use these vowels even when there is a sonorant (m, n, ñ, r, l, ll, y, w) between the vowel and the uvular. Otherwise, we use the "normal" vowels in the lefthand column. Foreigners pronouncing Quechua based on this spelling may not replicate the exact pronunciation of natives speaking a particular dialect, but they will be close to a typical pronunciation.

Long vowels are written using the Long mark, and stressed vowels (usually penultimate) are written high.


p p t t ch ʧ k k q q
ph th chh ʧʰ kh qh
p' p' t' t' ch' ʧ' k' k' q' q'
r ɾ s s y y w w h j h
m m n n ñ ɲ l l ll ʎ

Some dialects also use sh sh' (ʃ ʂ), which Shwa spells as .

Shwa writes Quechua in the Syllabary gait.


Now that you know the letters, why not try to read some Quechua written in Shwa?

Ama suwa, ama llulla, ama q'ella

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