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The look of a language

Preserving Quichua in the rainforests of Ecuador

Story by BYU January 12th, 2016

BYU linguistics professor Janis Nuckolls has spent 30 years learning, examining, documenting and preserving the evolving Quichua language. Most recently, in a study released yesterday in the International Journal of American Linguistics, Nuckolls looks at the use of Quichua ideophones — words that imitate sensory perceptions.

The study, which was co-authored with former BYU students Joseph Stanley, Elizabeth Nielsen and Roseanna Hopper, reveals that sound-imitative words in Quichua are different from regular words in this language. They are different in systematic ways. Nuckolls’ qualitative field experience was combined with Stanley’s expertise in digitizing data to write a search engine which detected accurate patterns of sound variation.

Although this study arose out of the first BYU Ecuador Study Abroad in 2011, Nuckolls has led two other study abroad trips to the same location, studying more and more of the Quichua language, one in 2013 and one this past summer. The trips allow her and her students to uncover more mysteries surrounding Quichua grammar and culture.
Luisa and Elodia are native Quichua speakers that work with students at the Andes and Amazon Field School.
Dr. Janis Nuckolls teaches a Quichua class at the Andes and Amazon Field School near Tena, Ecuador.
Sydney Jensen and Emily Peterson practice speaking in Quichua during their language class.
Sydney Jensen and Nicole Sperry interview a native Quichua speaker as part of their research.
Wildlife at the Andes and Amazon Field School.
Students interview native Quichua speakers at the Andes and Amazon Field School.
Housing at the field school.
Students interview native Quichua speakers at the Andes and Amazon Field School.
Notes list the meaning of various Quichua words.

An intriguing language and people

Approximately one million people located throughout the Andean Mountains of Ecuador, Columbia and Peru speak different dialects of Quichua, which is a 2,000-year-old language.

“Learning about the culture and lives of its speakers has been very exciting, humbling and thought-provoking,” Nuckolls said. “At first I was baffled by their culture. Then I was intrigued. Now I admire them a lot.”

Children play on the banks of the Napo River in Tena, Ecuador.

The language and culture are continually evolving, with the traditional Spanish language and customs creeping in more and more. Still, Nuckolls is optimistic. She referenced the concept of ecological boredom, which is the idea that modernization is inhibiting the ability of people to live their lives with autonomy and creativity. Nuckolls believes the Quichua people don’t have that problem.

“Their rainforest surroundings provide a never-ending source of reverence, stimulation, beauty, danger and humor,” Nuckolls said. “Once I began to understand the nature of the challenges they face, I developed a lot of respect and affection for individual people who, in turn, treat me like a member of their extended families.”

With the trust Nuckolls has gained, and the familial relationships she enjoys, she’s been able to conduct unparalleled research in this unique culture.

Students cross the Napo river for a visit to a local Chagra.
BYU Anthropology Student Brynna Nelson takes photos during a visit to a local Chagra.
BYU Students travel through the jungle to visit a Chagra.
Students learn how to paint with achiote seeds.
Students learn how to paint with achiote seeds.
Sydney Jensen uses a banana leaf  as cover during a rainstorm in the jungle.
Children play with a soccer ball in Tena, Ecuador.
Emily Peterson and Sydney Jensen use a banana leaf for cover during a rain storm in the jungle.
Brynna Nelson types up research notes at the Andes and Amazon Field School.

A Summer Abroad Unlike Others

For the BYU students, being in Ecuador and with the Quichua people is a highly-impactful experience. The students live at a field school, in a beautiful setting, with all the necessities they need — beds, sheets, bathrooms and three meals a day. Quichua people live and work at the school, providing constant interactions in the language.

Other Quichua speakers are bussed in from a nearby town. The field school also hosts other PhD scholars from Europe and the US who are studying in the area, giving the students and extra opportunity to learn of the people, culture and language from them.

BYU Professor Janis Nuckolls leads a group discussion during a Quichua class.
Native Quichua speaker Luisa answers student's questions during a language class.
Native Quichua speaker Elodia answers student's questions during a language class.
Dr. Janis Nuckolls teaches a Quichua class with the assistance of native speakers Luisa and Elodia.
Dr. Janis Nuckolls reviews an interview trascript with Belinda Ramirez.
Students prepare for a Quichua class at the Andes and Amazon Field School.
BYU Professor Janis Nuckolls teaches a Quichua class at the Andes and Amazon Field School.
BYU Professor Janis Nuckolls teaches a Quichua class at the Andes and Amazon Field School.
The Andes and Amazon Field School hosts lectures from local scholars.

"I’m really good at surrounding myself with really good students.” Janis Nuckolls

Luisa answers Matthew's questions about different words for colors in the Quichua language.

A Colorful Ideophonic Experience

One of the most fascinating experiences this past summer, was the discovery of how Quichua people speak about color. Instead of having unique, stand-alone words for each color, the Quichua people mostly describe color by speaking of a specific item that has that color in it. For example, when describing something that’s blue, they would describe it as the color of a toucan’s head feather. They would not use a stand-alone equivalent word for the color blue. This had never occurred to Nuckolls, who had always wondered why Quichua has so few color terms, and why the ones they do have are mostly borrowed from Spanish.

“To me this experience reveals the importance for Quichua people of carefully observing what they perceive around them,” Nuckolls said. “This in turn, helps nurture the special intelligence they have about nature and how it works.”

Dr. Nuckolls interveiws Belgica and Delicia about Quichua words for colors.
BYU Student Matthew Millar interviews Luisa about Quichua words for different colors.
A butterfly on the grounds of the Andes and Amazon Field School in Tena, Ecuador.
Dr. Nuckolls asks Belgica about Quichua words for colors in her necklace.
Wildlife on the grounds of the field school.
Flowers on the grounds of the field school in Tena, Ecuador.
The Grounds at the Andes and Amazon Field School near Tena, Ecuador.
A butterfly lands at the Field School in Tena, Ecuador.

Touring a Cooperative Farm

Students travel down the Napo river to visit a local farm.
Dr. Nuckolls asks Cezar about trees on his farm.
Cezar opens up a cocoa pod for students to taste the pulp surrounding the cocoa beans.
Students taste the pulp surrounding the cocoa beans.
Cezar's daughter paints a design on Sydney Jensen with the juice from a achiote seed.
Cezar shares pieces of sugarcane with the students at his farm.
Students get a hands on experience with a termite mound in Cezar's farm.
Cezar leads a student trip to his cooperative farm down the Tena River.
Cezar answers BYU Linguistics grad student Alex Rice's questions about his cooperative farm near Tena, Ecuador.
Students enjoy a snack during their visit to Cezar's cooperative farm near Tena, Ecuador.
Luisa and Elodia work with Dr. Nuckolls and Brynna Nelson to diagram an ideal chagra.

no reading, no writing, just rocks

One evening, a student asked two of the Quichua speakers to diagram some of their farming practices in fields which they call chagras. Quichua is not a written language. With the women not knowing how to read or write, they instead used small rocks on a large sheet of white paper and placed them exactly where they would plant different items.

On this study abroad, even the smallest details of Quichua life and language were explored.

Luisa looks on as night falls in Tena, Ecuador.
The completed diagram of the ideal layout of a chagra.
Luisa places rocks on a poster to diagram to show the ideal placement of different plants in an ideal chagra.
Students read on hammocks at the Field School.
A butterfly at in the jungle near Tena, Ecuador.
Pottery created with Quichua designs at the field school.

The Equador study abroad was an experience the students will never forget, and for Nuckolls, it’s an experience she wants all of her students to be able to have. There’s something special about being able to immerse yourself in a field of study, a language and a people.

“It’s a lot different from learning in a classroom,” said Emily Peterson, one of the linguistics students who were on the trip, “because sometimes in a normal classroom you feel disconnected from the material. But here, when you get to see the lives that the people live who speak the language that you’re studying, you get to look through a different lens and experience their culture in a more authentic way.”

Sunrise over the Napo river near Tena, Ecuador.
Footnote: Text by Jon Mcbride/BYU. Photography and Video by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo. Edited by Todd Wakefield/BYU Photo
The Andes and Amazon Field School, Near Tena, Ecuador
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