Episode 36: Quechua Language Documentation & Revitalization with Gladys Camacho Rios
March 31st, 2022
Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Gladys Camacho Rios. Gladys is an L1 speaker of the South Bolivian variety of Quechua. She is originally from a rural town where she inherited her native language along with its cultural values. She is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. She previously earned two MA degrees, one in Latin American Studies from New York University in 2016, and another MA in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 2019. Her fieldwork involves documenting monolingual Quechua as it is spoken by elderly people in rural towns in Bolivia, and she has received numerous grants, including the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from NSF (the National Science Foundation), and beyond that, Gladys has also created a new documentation and revitalization model to enhance scientific and humanistic understanding of the linguistic diversity of Bolivian Quechua. I really enjoyed doing this interview. It was so interesting to hear not only about Gladys’ research, but also about her work as a language activist. Beyond her linguistic work, she also writes novels and short stories in Quechua, and she runs a Quechuan Linguistics Summer School. And yeah, I just thought that her passion for all of the different aspects of her work was so infectious, and I’m really excited to share this interview with others.
MTB: Hi, Gladys. How are you?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Good, thank you.
MTB: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for coming on to Field Notes. I’m so excited to have you here. How are you?
Gladys Camacho Rios: I’m good, thank you. I’m back in Austin now.
MTB: Nice. Yeah, University of Texas at Austin, right?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yes.
MTB: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show, and today I just wanted to ask you about your experience as a Quechuan linguist. So to start, the first thing I’m wondering about is, can you share with us how you first became interested in linguistics?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Well, in Bolivia, after finishing high school, I studied applied linguistics San Simón University, and I wanted… First of all, I wanted to become an English teacher in a school in Bolivia, but while I was working on my BA, I got more interested in research, and particularly in my native language, South Bolivian Quechua. After finishing my BA in 2013, I was assisting Professor Gillian Gallagher from New York University and collecting data for her phonological experiments, and in the fall in 2013 of that same year, I was a visiting scholar in the linguistics department at NYU. During that semester, I sat on three linguistic courses, where I learned more about the field of linguistics, I became more interested in sounds, in variation. Then for my MA, I entered an MA at NYU. Then for my MA thesis, I ended up writing about sound variation, comparing two South Bolivian Quechua regional varieties working with elders in two communities, one in Torotoro, which is in the north of Potosí, and the other one in Tarabuco in Sucre. And another motivation to become a linguist has to do with my experience as a South Bolivian Quechua teacher and also a translator. Well, Quechuan languages are suffixing languages, so we can add many, many suffixes to a verb and also to nouns. We can add different morphemes to a verb, and the semantic nuance will change. Well, I felt that I spoke my native language perfectly, but I was unable to explain what the different Quechua morphemes mean. This was a big challenge in my experience teaching Quechua in Bolivia and also in New York City, where I taught several workshops on South Bolivian Quechua grammar. The other path that drove me into linguistics has to do with my experience as a translator. In 2013, when I was a visiting scholar at NYU, before that, I published a novel written in my native language and we, Professor Gillian Gallagher and I, translated it into English. It was very challenging to translate all the nuances that verbal morphemes could add. In Quechua, for example, we can make very long word forms, for instance suya-raya-chi-sha-lla-wa-nki=puni=qa ‘You keep making me wait,’ but it’s quite challenging to define what meaning each of these morphemes in this verb form will add to the meaning of the main verb. And then in 2015, when I was finishing my MA, I went to the Linguistics Society of America Summer School in Chicago. I really liked this experience. I had the opportunity to meet linguists from all over the world. I learned more about linguistics, and also I learned about the linguistics program at the University of Texas at Austin. I really like their focus on language documentation and description, and beyond that, I was… I found out that UT also works training native speakers in linguistics, and… Well, UT had a very long history of doing that, and I met some professors from UT that were in Chicago. After that summer, I decided to apply to UT to pursue a PhD in linguistics, which I’m currently finishing now.
MTB: Awesome. That’s so interesting. Can I ask you a question about the example that you gave, ‘You keep making me wait’? So there’s a verb stem, like a main verb stem, plus…
Gladys Camacho Rios: Suya.
MTB: … plus many morphemes. Is that right?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Mm-hmm.
Gladys Camacho Rios: There’s this, suya-raya-chi-sha-lla-wa-nki=puni=qa. There’s this verb stem suya-, –raya suffix, –chi, -sha, -lla, -nki, =puni, and =qa.
Gladys Camacho Rios: So one, two, three, four, five, six, seven suffixes. Some of them are formatives. The other ones are part of the inflection, and two of them are enclitics.
Gladys Camacho Rios: Now, I can kind of recognize them, but before that like it was like, “I don’t know what it means, but it makes sense to me as a native speaker of Quechua.”
MTB: Yeah. So the verb stem is ‘wait…’
Gladys Camacho Rios: Mm-hmm.
MTB: ‘To wait,’ and then… Okay. Wow, that’s really interesting.
Gladys Camacho Rios: –raya would be something like stative or in a positionary place, and then —chi would be the causative, and –sha is the progressive marker.
Gladys Camacho Rios: -lla, I still don’t understand, and -nki is like ‘you to me…’
Gladys Camacho Rios: … the inflection. Something like that.
MTB: That’s really interesting, and there are many of these.
Gladys Camacho Rios: Mm-hmm.
MTB: So, so interesting. For people who aren’t familiar with Quechuan languages, can you give a bit of information about the language context, and I think there it is a large language family as well, so maybe you could give us some clarity about it’s not just one standard single Quechua language, right?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Mm-hmm. Yes. First, I will give some context of Quechuan languages. Quechua is a language family spoken across the Andes of South America. It’s spoken by approximately 10 million people in different South American countries, including Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and parts of Colombia and Argentina, and there are at least 13 different Quechua languages: six in the north, four in the central Andes, and three in southern Andes, and my colleagues Simeon Floyd and Félix Hulca, we made this classification based on languages’ mutual intelligibility and some linguistic features. However, people act as if Quechua was a single language. For instance, programs in the US, they say they teach Quechua. This is problematic in several aspects, such as the creation of educational materials, teaching methodologies like unification given the linguistic diversity. I would like to highlight that Quechua is a group of different languages that share a common history but are not the same. We should reconsider referring to Quechua as one single language, because, like I said, there are at least 13 different Quechua languages. And now some notes concerning the vitality of Quechuan languages. Based on the number of speakers, we can consider Quechuan languages vital because it’s widely spoken across the Andes and kids are learning it. However, like some varieties of Quechuan languages are in danger of disappearing. I can explain this in in the Bolivian context. For example the vast majority of speakers of South Bolivian Quechua (of which I’m a native speaker of this variety), they live in urbanized areas where Spanish is the dominant language. Some of them are more dominant in Spanish because they had migrated to the cities at an early stage of their lives, and… However, the minority population of south Bolivian Quechua live in rural towns that are located at greater distances from the urbanized areas. There are many, many, many rural towns with this characteristic. In these towns, Bolivian Quechua is used in the everyday conversation. In most cases, though, these rural towns are only populated by a few elders because young people have migrated to the metropolitan areas. Regarding my own experience working with rural varieties of South Bolivian Quechua, while we can state Bolivian Quechua is vital, the linguistic diversity is highly endangered due to sociolinguistic context. The rural towns, like I said, that are populated by few elders are decreasing in population, and the way those elders speak is in danger of disappearing, and they are not being passed to younger generations. And to my experience as a native speaker of Quechua and working on linguistics, these rural varieties of Bolivian Quechua are different on many levels, like the grammar of rural varieties and the grammar of urban varieties is not uniform. There are a lot of differences at the morphological level, lexical level, and so on. Unfortunately, these varieties are not being preserved, or their speech is not being recorded or documented.
MTB: Is there a dominant variety out of the, I think you said 13, at least 13 languages?
Gladys Camacho Rios: I don’t know across the Andes, but within Bolivia, the dominant variety would be like the variety that’s spoken in urbanized areas where the, most Quechua speakers live, and they are mostly bilingual, Quechua and Spanish, and sometimes they are Spanish-dominant.
MTB: I see. And in the rural areas, is it mostly monolingual Quechuan…
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yes.
MTB: … speakers? Oh, wow, okay.
Gladys Camacho Rios: They use Quechua to communicate in their everyday life.
MTB: Can you tell us more about Aymara, so like language context, and also your work with this language?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Well, historically like Aymara and Quechua have been in contact for a very long time. Actually, these two languages share different linguistic features. They have similar sound system, similar lexicon, and similar morphology. For instance, both languages have phonological contrast between plain, aspirate, and ejective, like [pa pha p’a], and [ka kha] and [k’a], [qa qha] and [q’a] and so on. They also share a lot of lexicon. They have a lexicon in common, and something like very interesting that happens in these two languages, perhaps this is the result of long-term contact, it’s concerning how people perceive the future. Like it’s said that… I think it’s the same way in Aymara and also in Quechua, like the future is behind us. It works in the same way. We have two adverbial markers in Quechua, for example, ñawpaq and qhepa to talk about the future, but we use the same adverbials to say like ‘behind.’ I think that’s the relation that we have between these two languages. And also, in Bolivia we have towns that are still bilingual.
MTB: Okay, in both Quechua and…
Gladys Camacho Rios: And Aymara.
MTB: Really interesting. I want to go back to that, that idea of referencing the future, the future is behind you and the past is in front of you, because for… I think for English speakers, they don’t really think about it that way, if we’re talking about like, “Yeah, I’ll do it tomorrow,” people will do a gesture for in front of them, right, or “Oh, I did it yesterday,” they’ll gesture behind, but I read that in Quechua this is, or in Aymara this is not the case. Are there also gestures? Can you tell us more about it?
Gladys Camacho Rios: About gestures… I don’t think we have particular gestures to talk about that, but then whenever we use those words, like we know we are talking about, it… There’s no just no difference, like whether I’m talking about a future or something that’s behind me.
MTB: Yeah. It’s the same.
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yeah.
MTB: Has there been any work on that, or…
Gladys Camacho Rios: I think with Aymara, they have, they had, there’s some work on that, but not in Quechua, but when we were discussing in one of our classes with Dr. Epps like, “Actually, Quechua works the same way.”
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yeah. Perhaps this is the result of long-term contact, like I said.
MTB: Yeah, because are they related or just in contact?
Gladys Camacho Rios: I think they have been in contact, like for a very long time. Actually, there are towns in Bolivia that, before, they were Aymara-speaking towns and then at some point they became bilingual, and more towns in the north of Potosí now, like those Aymara towns are only Quechua. They’re switching into Quechua.
MTB: Wow. That’s interesting.
Gladys Camacho Rios: There are a couple of, well, several towns where kids are no longer learning Quechua and Aymara, but only Quechua.
MTB: Okay. Wow. And so, are the number like I know it’s so hard to think about numbers of speakers, but would you say then that the vitality of Aymara in number of speakers would be much lower compared to Quechua?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Aymara? Yeah, it’s lower, but in general like bilingual towns are even lower than that.
MTB: I see. I’d like to hear more about your own research, what you’re working on. Now you’re doing a PhD. Can you share with us some of your own work and what you’re doing now?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yes. I’m particularly interested in verbal morphology of varieties that are spoken in rural towns. I come from a rural town. My grandparents were monolingual in South Bolivian Quechua, and my mother is also monolingual in South Bolivian Quechua. The way they speak and the way people speak in rural towns is morphologically more elaborate. They have more verbs, or nouns, have more morphemes, and, well, verbs are more complex, they use more suffixes, and I would like to understand what the grammar of those rural varieties are. And that’s the main focus of my dissertation too.
MTB: And have you already collected the data for that, or are you still collecting?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yeah. I just finished collecting all the data, so last summer, yeah, I finished documenting, so I have more than 50 hours of natural speech with elders in a rural town, and like over the Christmas, I was finishing elicitation with them. Yeah, I already collected the data for my dissertation. It’s a huge corpus that’s also transcribed in ELAN, and I used that data to support my analysis.
MTB: Yeah, that’s awesome, 50 hours. Will you put it in AILLA, or is it…
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yes.
MTB: … going somewhere else? AILLA
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yeah, I will put it in AILLA next summer.
MTB: Yeah. That’s like a whole ‘nother undertaking, isn’t it, like you collect the data, you analyze the data, you do the PhD, and then you have to deposit it.
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yes.
MTB: Yeah. I just finished doing a… Not everything, but a chunk of data in ELAR, but you have you have time. I didn’t even think about it until after my PhD was finished, my viva was finished, and then I felt like, “Okay, now I have some space to deposit it in a nice way.”
Gladys Camacho Rios: I think I will do the same thing, like after I’m done with the dissertation, I will deposit into AILLA all the material that I have.
MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Great. Can we talk a little bit about your work in language revitalization, also language activism? You are involved in language activism. Can you share more about that?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yes, that’s true. I work as a language activist as well, like this… How did this start? The strong commitment to my native language started with the publication of a novel entirely written in South Bolivian Quechua that was in back in 2013. To date, I have also written several texts in my native language that are oriented to a non-academic community. Like I said, in 2013 I wrote a novel titled Phuyup Yawar Waqaynin, ‘The cloud’s bloody tears.’ This is a novel based on my grandparents’ life. And in 2019, I wrote Kumpa Atuqmariqa ‘TheAdventures of Mr. Fox.’ This was in collaboration with community members of Uma Piwra, where I am documenting the speech of elders, where I was documenting the speech of elders. Last year, I also produced two more texts. One is a horror story about a human’s soul. The second one is a comics, Jamuy samaman ‘Come get lunch with me.’ This is inspired by one of the monolingual elders who lives by himself at the top of the mountain. In the comics, he has a best friend. His best friend is an Andean cat, and a species that’s in danger of extinction. Well, with my work as an activist, I want to recover the cultural knowledge of my native language and the… For instance, my grandfather was a talented storyteller, and he was very good at that, and I would like to preserve those stories, but beyond that, my activism work also consists in teaching descriptive linguistics in Bolivia. Since 2016, I led the Linguistics Summer School Bolivia. This is a grassroots initiative to foster a pioneering new group of native speakers highly committed to documenting, describing, and building up revitalization programs in their communities of origin, like for instance, like since 2016, every year we organize the school to teach linguistics to speakers of Indigenous languages of Bolivia, and also to students that are not necessarily speakers of an Indigenous language, but they are interested in linguistics. We have in Bolivia, we have 36 Indigenous languages officially recognized by the political constitution, and as a result of our courses like to date, two Bolivian students are currently pursuing PhD in linguistics in the US. One of them is a native speaker of South Bolivian Quechua. This upcoming July, we will have a training addressed to speakers of Amazonian languages. Languages of these regions are severely in danger of disappearing as older generations pass away. For instance, there is a language called Moré. It has two fluent speakers. The two fluent speakers are very old, and so the goal of my work as a language activist is, like I said before, to foster a new pioneering group of native speakers highly committed to working with their native languages in their communities. So the goal of the 2022 training is to foster speakers of Amazonian languages and to get them involved into linguistics, and by the end of the decade, declared by UNESCO, will hopefully have like native speakers from the Amazonia and studying linguistics and working on revitalization. That’s the goal.
MTB: That’s amazing. That’s so awesome. I just had a follow-up question. So you said that there are there… Was it 36 recognized languages? Are there also some unrecognized languages as well, or is that pretty accurate, 36?
Gladys Camacho Rios: It’s probably accurate, but we might have a lot of varieties of those languages, particularly from those languages that are spoken in the Amazonia region.
MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s so incredible.
Gladys Camacho Rios: But some of them have very few speakers, like Moré has two speakers, two fluent speakers, and there are no young, younger speakers of that language. By the end of the decade, that language is going to die.
MTB: Yeah. Okay, so that’s my last main question. Can I ask you about what future research you are most excited about, like some project you plan to do in the future, or if there is something that you’re like, “Wow, I don’t have time to do this, but somebody should do it”?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yeah. I would like to continue studying rural varieties of South Bolivian Quechua because I would like to contribute to the understanding of the linguistic diversity of Bolivian Quechua, and to not think as one single Bolivian variety — because there are many, many varieties of South Bolivian Quechua. And I would also like to continue documenting rural varieties, because there are several towns, and like I said earlier, such varieties are in danger of disappearing, and I would like to preserve their unique system like spoken by elders who are living in rural towns. I’m also very excited about my work as a language activist. My linguistic work has inspired several native speakers of South Bolivian Quechua, and they are currently involved in language documentation and description, and I believe like involving more Indigenous students in linguistics work will bring new perspectives and advancing the field of linguistics, particularly regarding studies on Indigenous languages.
Gladys Camacho Rios: Is that all good?
MTB: Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Gladys. Where can people learn more about your work? Where can they find you online and read about your publications and your novel and your comic? Is there anywhere that, if we have Quechuan listeners or maybe diaspora people, they can find that?
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yes. All the materials that I wrote are freely available on the internet. People can find more information about my work. I have a website under my name, Gladys Camacho Rios, and people can also follow me on Twitter under the name chhullunka. That’s @chhullunka, and we also have a website for Linguistics Summer School Bolivia. We are also on Facebook under the same name. People are welcome to follow us. We constantly post our events, our news on Facebook, and if we have a work coming out, we also post on Facebook and our webpage.
MTB: Excellent. Thank you, and I’ll link everything in the show notes so people can find it easily.
Gladys Camacho Rios: Yeah, thank you.
MTB: Thanks, Gladys.
Gladys Camacho Rios: Thank you so much for inviting me.
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