Aymara language

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Aymar aru
Native to Bolivia, Peru and Chile.
Ethnicity Aymara people
Native speakers
2.8 million (2000–2006)[1]
  • Aymara
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ay
ISO 639-2 aym
ISO 639-3 ayminclusive code
Individual codes:
ayr – Central Aymara
ayc – Southern Aymara
Glottolog nucl1667[2]
Geographic Distribution of the Aymara language
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Aymara (Aymar aru) is an Aymaran language spoken by the Aymara people of the Andes. It is one of only a handful of Native American languages with over three and a half million speakers.[3][4] Aymara, along with Quechua and Spanish, is an official language of Bolivia. It is also spoken around the Lake Titicaca region of southern Peru and, to a much lesser extent, by some communities in northern Chile and in Northwest Argentina.

Some linguists have claimed that Aymara is related to its more widely spoken neighbour, Quechua. This claim, however, is disputed. Although there are indeed similarities, such as the nearly identical phonologies, the majority position among linguists today is that these similarities are better explained as areal features, resulting from prolonged interaction between the two languages, and they are not demonstrably related.

The Aymara language is an agglutinating and, to a certain extent, a polysynthetic language. It has a subject–object–verb word order.

Etymology of the ethnonym

The ethnonym "Aymara" may be ultimately derived from the name of some group occupying the southern part of what is now the Quechua speaking area of Apurimac.[5] Regardless, the use of the word "Aymara" as a label for this people was standard practice as early as 1567, as evident from Garci Diez de San Miguel’s report of his inspection of the province of Chucuito (1567, 14; cited in Lafaye 1964). In this document, he uses the term aymaraes to refer to the people. The language was then called Colla. It is believed that Colla was the name of an Aymara nation at the time of conquest, and later was the southernmost region of the Inca empire Collasuyu. However, Cerron-Palomino disputes this claim and asserts that Colla were in fact Pukina speakers, who were the rulers of the Tiwanaku kingdom in the first and third centuries (2008:246). This hypothesis suggests that the linguistically-diverse area ruled by the Pukina came to adopt Aymara languages in their southern region.[6]

In any case, the use of "Aymara" to refer to the language may have first occurred in the works of the lawyer, magistrate and tax collector in Potosi and Cuzco, Juan Polo de Ondegardo. This man, who later assisted Viceroy Toledo in creating a system under which the indigenous population would be ruled for the next 200 years, wrote a report in 1559 entitled ‘On the lineage of the Yncas and how they extended their conquests’ in which he discusses land and taxation issues of the Aymara under the Inca empire.

It took over another century for this usage of "Aymara" in reference to the language spoken by the Aymara people to become general use (Briggs, 1976:14). In the meantime the Aymara language was referred to as "the language of the Colla". The best account of the history of Aymara is that of Cerrón-Palomino, who shows that the ethnonym Aymara, which came from the glottonym, is likely derived from the Quechuaized topoynm ayma-ra-y ‘place of communal property’. The entire history of this term is thoroughly outlined in his book, Voces del Ande (2008:19–32) and Lingüística Aimara.[7]

The suggestion that "Aymara" comes from the Aymara words "jaya" (ancient) and "mara" (year, time) is almost certainly a mistaken folk etymology.


Beginning with Spanish missionary efforts, there have been many attempts to create a writing system for Aymara. The colonial sources employed a variety of Hispanized writing systems, the most widespread being that of Bertonio. Many of the early grammars employed unique alphabets as well such as that of Middendorf’s Aymara-Sprache (1891).

The first official alphabet to be adopted for Aymara was the scientific alphabet. It was approved by the III Congreso Indigenista Interamericano de la Paz in 1954 though its origins can be traced as far back as 1931. Rs. No 1593 (Deza Galindo 1989, 17). It was the first official record of an alphabet but in 1914, Sisko Chukiwanka Ayulo and Julián Palacios Ríos had recorded what may be the first of many attempts to have one alphabet for both Quechua and Aymara. Theirs was called Syentifiko Qheshwa-Aymara Alfabeto and was composed of 37 graphemes. Several other attempts followed at various degrees of success to do the same. Some orthographic attempts even expand further: the Alfabeto Funcional Trilingüe, made up of 40 letters (including the voiced stops necessary for Spanish) and created by the Academia de las Lenguas Aymara y Quechua in Puno in 1944 is the one used by the lexicographer Juan Francisco Deza Galindo in his Diccionario Aymara – Castellano / Castellano – Aymara. This alphabet has five vowels ⟨a, e, i, o, u⟩, aspiration is conveyed with an ⟨h⟩ next to the consonant and ejectives with ⟨’⟩. The most unique characteristic is the expression of the uvular /x/ with ⟨jh⟩. The other uvular segment, the /q/ is expressed by ⟨q⟩ but transcription rules mandate that the following vowel must be ⟨a, e, o⟩ (not ⟨i, u⟩), presumably to account for uvular lowering and with the intent to facilitate multilingual orthography.

The alphabet created by the Comisión de Alfabetización y Literatura Aymara (CALA) was officially recognized in Bolivia in 1968 (coexisting with the 1954 Scientific Alphabet) and, aside from being the alphabet employed by Protestant missionaries, it is also the one used for the translation of the Book of Mormon. It was also in 1968 that de Dios Yapita created his take on the Aymara alphabet at the Instituto de Lenga y Cultura Aymara (ILCA).

Nearly fifteen years later, the Servicio Nacional de Alfabetización y Educación Popular (SENALEP) attempted to consolidate these alphabets to create a system which could be used to write both Aymara and Quechua, creating what was known as the Alfabeto Unificado. This alphabet, later sanctioned in Bolivia by Decree 20227 on 9 May 1984 and in Peru as la Resolución Ministeral Peruana 1218ED on 18 November 1985 consists of 3 vowels and 26 consonants and an umlaut to mark vowel length.



Aymara has three phonemic vowels /a i u/, which, in most varieties of the language, distinguish two degrees of length. Long vowels are indicated with an umlaut in writing: ä ï ü. The high vowels are lowered to mid height when near uvular consonants (/i/[e], /u/[o]).

Vowel deletion

Vowel deletion seems to be unique to Aymara. Every instance of vowel deletion occurs for one of three reasons: (i) phonotactic, (ii) syntactic, and (iii) morphophonemic.[8]

  • Phonotactic vowel deletion, hiatus reduction, occurs when two vowels become adjacent as a consequence of word construction or through the process of suffixation. In such environments one of the two vowels deletes: (i) if one of the two vowels is /u/, that vowel will be the only one that surfaces, (ii) if the vowels are /i/ and /a/, the /i/ will surface. (iii) If the sequence is composed of two identical vowels, one will delete.
  • Vowel elision can be syntactically conditioned. For example, in nominal compounds and noun phrases, all adjectival/nominal modifiers with three or more vowels in a modifier + nucleus NP lose their final vowel.
  • Morphemic vowel deletion is the most common. Some suffixes always suppress the preceding vowel, and some lose their own nucleus under predictable conditions. The class of vowel-suppressing suffixes cannot be defined in terms of some common morphological, morpho-syntactic, or semantic feature. Suffixes from all categories in the language suppress the preceding vowel.


As for the consonants, Aymara has phonemic stops at the labial, alveolar, palatal, velar and uvular points of articulation. Stops show no distinction of voice (e.g. there is no phonemic contrast between [p] and [b]), but each stop has three forms: plain (tenuis), glottalized, and aspirated. Aymara also has a trilled /r/, and an alveolar/palatal contrast for nasals and laterals, as well as two semivowels (/w/ and /j/).

Bilabial Dental/
Palatal Velar Uvular
Nasal m n ɲ
Plosive voiceless p t t͡ʃ k q
aspirated t͡ʃʰ
ejective t͡ʃʼ
Fricative s x χ
Approximant central j w
lateral l ʎ
Rhotic r


Stress is usually on the penult (the syllable before the last one), but long vowels may shift it. Also, the final vowel of words is elided except at the end of a phrase, but the stress remains on its original syllable.

Syllable structure

The vast majority of roots are bisyllabic and, with few exceptions, suffixes are monosyllabic. Roots conform to one of two templates: CV(C)CV or V(C)CV. The former is the most common, with CVCV being predominant. As for the suffixes, the majority are CV, though there are some exceptions: CVCV, CCV, CCVCV and even VCV are possible but rare. The agglutinative nature of this suffixal language, coupled with morphophonological alternations caused by vowel deletion and phonologically conditioned constraints give rise to interesting surface structures that operate in the domain of the morpheme, syllable, and phonological word/phrase. The phonological/morphophonological processes observed include syllabic reduction, epenthesis, deletion, and reduplication.[8]


Aymara is a highly agglutinative, suffixal language. All suffixes can be categorized into the nominal, verbal, transpositional and those not subcategorized for lexical category (including stem-external word-level suffixes and phrase-final suffixes),[8] as below:

  • Nominal and verbal morphology is characterized by derivational- and inflectional-like suffixes as well as non-productive suffixes.
  • Transpositional morphology consists of verbalizers (that operate on the root or phrasal levels) and nominalizers (including an action nominalizer, an agentive, and a resultative).
  • Suffixes not subcategorized for lexical category can be divided into three stem-external, word-level suffixes (otherwise known as "independent suffixes") and around a dozen phrase-final suffixes (otherwise known as "sentence suffixes").

Nominal suffixes

  • Non-productive nominal suffixes vary considerably by variant but typically include those below. Some varieites additionally also have (1) the suffix -wurasa (< Spanish 'horas'), which expresses ‘when’ on aka ‘this’, uka ‘that’ and kuna ‘what’; (2) temporal suffixes -unt ~ -umt; and (3) -kucha, which attaches to only two roots, jani ‘no’ and jicha ‘now’:
    • kinship suffixes, including -la, -lla, -chi, and/or -ta
    • the expression of size with -ch’a
    • the suffix -sa ‘side’, which attaches to only the demonstratives and kawki ‘where’
  • Nominal derivational-like suffixes:
    • diminutive suffixes
    • delimitative suffix -chapi
  • Nominal inflectional-like suffixes:
    • Attributive suffix -ni
    • Possessive paradigm
    • Plural -naka
    • Reciprocal/inclusor -pacha
    • Case suffixes - Syntactic relations are generally case-marked, with the exception of the unmarked subject. Case is affixed to the last element of a noun phrase, usually corresponding to the head. Most varieties of Aymara have 14 cases (though in many, the genitive and locative have merged into a single form): ablative -ta, accusative (indicated by vowel suppression), allative -ru, benefactive -taki, comparative -jama, genitive -na, instrumental/comitative -mpi, interactive -pura, locative -na, limitative -kama, nominative (zero), perlative -kata, purposive -layku.

Verbal suffixes

All verbs require at least one suffix to be grammatical.

  • Verbal derivational-like suffixes
    • Direction of motion — Although these suffixes are quite productive, they are not obligatory. The meaning of a word which is affixed with a member of this category is often but not always predictable, and the word formed may have a different meaning than the root.
    • Spatial location — The nine spatial locations ones are likewise highly productive and not obligatory. Similarly, the meaning of the word to which a member of this category attaches is typically (but not consistently) predictable. There are also contexts in which the word formed has a meaning that significantly differs from that of the root to which it attaches.
    • Valency-increasing — The five valency increasing suffixes may occur on a wide range of verbs but are not obligatory. The meaning expressed when a word receives one of these suffixes is predictable.
    • Multipliers/reversers — The two multipliers/reversers are comparatively less productive and are not obligatory. In some contexts, attachment to a verb conveys a reverser meaning and effectively express the opposite of the meaning of the plain root. In this respect, the multipliers/reversers are the most derivational-like of all the suffixes discussed so far.
    • Aspect — This category is complicated insofar as it is made up of a diverse array of suffix types, some of which are more productive and/or obligatory than others.
    • Others — In some varieties of Aymara, there are three suffixes not classified into the categories above: the verbal comparative -jama, the category buffer -(w)jwa, and the intensifier -paya. Semantically, these three suffixes do not have much in common. They also vary with respect to the degree which they may be classified as more derivational-like or more inflectional-like.
  • Verbal inflectional-like suffixes:
    • Person/tense — Person and tense are fused into a unitary suffix. These forms are among the most inflectional-like of the verbal suffixes insofar as they are all obligatory and productive. The so-called personal-knowledge tenses include the simple (non-past) and the proximal past. The non-personal knowledge tenses includes the future and distal past.
    • Number — The plural verbal suffix, -pha (just as the nominal one,-naka) is optional. Thus, while pluralization is very productive, it is not obligatory.
    • Mood and modality — Mood and modality includes mood, evidentials, event modality, and the imperative. These suffixes are both productive and obligatory. Their semantic affect is usually transparent.

Transpositional suffixes

A given word can take several transpositional suffixes:

  • Verbalizers: There are six suffixes whose primary function is to verbalize nominal roots (not including the reflexive -si and the propagative -tata). These forms can be subdivided into two groups, (1) phrase verbalizers and (2) root verbalizers.
  • Nominalizers: There are three suffixes are used to derive nouns: the agentive -iri, the resultative -ta, and the action nominalizer (sometimes glossed as the "infinitive" in some descriptions) -ña.

Suffixes not subcategorized for lexical categories

There are two kinds of suffixes not subcategorized for lexical categories:

  • Stem external word-final suffixes (sometimes known as "independent suffixes") — There are three suffixes that are not classifiable as members of either nominal or verbal morphology and are not phrase-final suffixes: the emphatic -puni, the delimitative -ki, and the additive -raki
  • Phrase-final suffixes (sometimes known as "sentence suffixes" in the literature) — Most Aymara phrases have at least one of the eleven (depending on variant) possible phrase-final suffixes to be grammatical. The phrase-final suffix must appear minimally on a noun, noun phrase, verb, or verb phrase (note that two phrase-final suffixes, the additive -sa and the confirmatory -pi appear exclusively on nouns but otherwise pattern with phrase-final suffixes and so may not be best treated with nominal morphology). Exceptions to the requirement that a phrase has at least one phrase-final suffix are mainly limited to imperative constructions.

Geographical distribution

Aymara language domain as of 1984
A map of the distribution of Aymara limited to three southern departments with compact Aymara populations: Puno, Moquegua, Tacna.

There are roughly two million Bolivian speakers, half a million Peruvian speakers, and perhaps a few thousand speakers in Chile and Argentina.[9] At the time of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, Aymara was the dominant language over a much larger area than today, including most of highland, Peru south of Cuzco. Over the centuries, Aymara has gradually lost speakers both to Spanish and to Quechua; many Peruvian and Bolivian communities that were once Aymara-speaking now speak Quechua.[10]


There is some degree of regional variation within the Aymara language although all the dialects are mutually intelligible.[11] Most studies of the language focused on either the Aymara spoken on the southern Peruvian shore of Lake Titicaca or the Aymara spoken around La Paz. Lucy Therina Briggs classifies both of these regions as being part of the Northern Aymara dialect, which encompasses the department of La Paz in Bolivia and the department of Puno in Peru. The Southern Aymara dialect is spoken in the eastern half of the Iquique province in northern Chile and in most of the Bolivian department of Oruro. It is also found in northern Potosí and southwest Cochabamba but is slowly being replaced by Quechua in those regions. Intermediate Aymara shares dialectical features with both Northern and Southern Aymara and is found in the eastern half of the Tacna and Moquegua departments in southern Peru and in the northeastern tip of Chile.[12]

Wider language family

It is often assumed that the Aymara language descends from the language spoken in Tiwanaku on the grounds that it is the native language of that area today. This is very far from certain, however, and most specialists now incline to the idea that Aymara did not expand into the Tiwanaku area until rather late, as it spread southwards from an original homeland more likely to have been in Central Peru.[13] Aymara placenames are found all the way north into central Peru, and indeed, (Altiplano) Aymara is actually but one of the two extant languages of a wider language family, the other surviving representative being Jaqaru/Kawki.

Thr family was established by the research of Dr. Lucy Briggs (a fluent speaker) and Dr. Martha Hardman de Bautista of the Program in Linguistics at the University of Florida. Jaqaru [jaqi aru = human language] and Kawki communities are in the district of Tupe, Yauyos Valley, in the Dept. of Lima, in central Peru. Terminology for this wider language family is not yet well established. Hardman has proposed the name 'Jaqi' ('human') while other widely respected Peruvian linguists have proposed alternative names for the same language family. Alfredo Torero uses the term 'Aru' ('speech'); Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino, meanwhile, has proposed that the term 'Aymara' should be used for the whole family, distinguished into two branches, Southern (or Altiplano) Aymara and Central Aymara (Jaqaru and Kawki). Each of these three proposals has its followers in Andean linguistics. In English usage, some linguists use the term Aymaran for the family and reserve 'Aymara' for the Altiplano branch.


Linguistic and gestural analysis by Núñez and Sweetser also asserts that the Aymara have an apparently unique or at least very rare understanding of time, and Aymara is, with Quechua, one of very few [Núñez & Sweetser, 2006, p. 403] languages in which speakers seem to represent the past as in front of them and the future as behind them. Their argument is situated mainly within the framework of conceptual metaphor, which recognizes in general two subtypes of the metaphor "the passage of time is motion:" one is "time passing is motion over a landscape" (or "moving-ego"), and the other is "time passing is a moving object" ("moving-events"). The latter metaphor does not explicitly involve the individual/speaker; events are in a queue, with prior events towards the front of the line. The individual may be facing the queue, or it may be moving from left to right in front of him/her.

The claims regarding Aymara involve the moving-ego metaphor. Most languages conceptualize the ego as moving forward into the future, with ego's back to the past. The English sentences prepare for what lies before us and we are facing a prosperous future exemplify this metaphor. In contrast, Aymara seems to encode the past as in front of individuals and the future behind them; this is typologically a rare phenomenon [Núñez & Sweetser, 2006, p. 416].

The fact that English has words like before and after that are (currently or archaically) polysemous between 'front/earlier' or 'back/later' may seem to refute the claims regarding Aymara uniqueness. However, these words relate events to other events and are part of the moving-events metaphor. In fact, when before means in front of ego, it can mean only future. For instance, our future is laid out before us while our past is behind us. Parallel Aymara examples describe future days as qhipa uru, literally 'back days', and they are sometimes accompanied by gestures to behind the speaker. The same applies to Quechua speakers, whose expression qhipa p'unchaw corresponds directly to Aymara qhipa uru. Possibly, the metaphor is that the past is visible to us (in front of our eyes) while the future is not.


There is increasing use of Aymara locally and there are increased numbers learning the language, both Bolivian and abroad. In Bolivia and Peru, intercultural bilingual education programs with Aymara and Spanish have been introduced in the last two decades. There are even projects to offer Aymara through the internet, such as by ILCA.[14]

See also


  1. Aymara at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Central Aymara at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Southern Aymara at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nuclear Aymara". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Bolivia: Idioma Materno de la Población de 4 años de edad y más- UBICACIÓN, ÁREA GEOGRÁFICA, SEXO Y EDAD". 2001 Bolivian Census. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, La Paz — Bolivia.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. The other native American languages with more than one million speakers are Nahuatl, Quechua languages, and Guaraní.
  5. Willem Adelaar with Pieter Muysken, Languages of the Andes, CUP, Cambridge, 2004, pp 259
  6. Coler, Matt (2015). A Grammar of Muylaq' Aymara: Aymara as spoken in Southern Peru. Brill's Studies in the Indigenous Languages of the Americas. Brill. p. 9. ISBN 978-9-00-428380-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Rodolfo Cerron-Palomino, Lingüística Aimara, Centro de Estudios Regionales Andinos "Bartolomé de las Casas", Lima, 2000, pp 34-6.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Matt Coler, A Grammar of Muylaq' Aymara: Aymara as spoken in Southern Peru. Brill: Leiden, 2014.
  9. Ethnologue: 1.785 million in Bolivia in 1987; 442 thousand of the central dialect in Peru in 2000, plus an unknown number of speakers of the southern dialect in Peru; 900 in Chile in 1994 out of a much larger ethnic population; an unstated number in Argentina.
  10. Xavier Albó, "Andean People in the Twentieth Century," in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. III: South America, ed. Frank Salomon and Stuart B. Schwartz (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 765-871.
  11. SIL's Ethnologue.com and the ISO designate a Southern Aymara dialect found in between Lake Titicaca and the Pacific Coast in southern Peru and a Central Aymara dialect found in western Bolivia and northeastern Chile. These classifications, however, are not based upon academic research and are probably a misinterpretation of Cerron-Palomino's classification of the language family.
  12. Lucy Therina Briggs, Dialectal Variation in the Aymara Language of Bolivia and Peru, Dissertation, University of Florida, Gainesville, 1976; Adalberto Salas and María Teresa Poblete, "El aimara de Chile (fonología, textos, léxico)", Revista de Filología y Lingüística de la Universidad de Costa Rica, Vol XXIII: 1, pp 121-203, 2, pp 95-138; Cerron-Palomino, 2000, pp 65-8, 373.
  13. Heggarty, P.; Beresford-Jones, D. (2013). "Andes: linguistic history.". In Ness, I.; P., Bellwood (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 401–409.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. http://www.ilcanet.org/ciberaymara


Further reading

External links