It is commonly believed that “Quechua” refers to a single language, but in reality, this word refers to an entire family of diverse languages native to South America.  Ethnologue identifies 47 Quechuan languages. These languages are spoken in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. There are over 6 million speakers of Quechuan languages in the world. Shown here are where Quechuan languages are spoken:

Quechuan languages may be divided into two major groups based on their grammar, sounds and vocabulary. The groups are called Quechua I and Quechua II. Quechua II languages are typically further subdivided into three groups: A, B, and C. While these languages may sound very different from one another today, they are all originally descended from the same language, just like modern-day French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian have all descended from Latin.  The following is a list of Quechuan languages organized into their groups and subgroups.

Quechua I

Ambo-Pasco Quechua
Cajatambo North Lima Quechua
Chaupihuaranga Quechua
Chiquián Ancash Quechua
Corongo Ancash Quechua
Huallaga Huánuco Quechua
Huamalíes-Dos de Mayo Huánuco Quechua
Huaylas Ancash Quechua
Huaylla Wanca Quechua
Jauja Wanca Quechua
Margos-Yarowilca-Lauricocha Quechua
North Junín Quechua
Northern Conchucos Ancash Quechua
Panao Huánuco Quechua
Santa Ana de Tusi Pasco Quechua
Sihuas Ancash Quechua
Southern Conchucos Ancash Quechua

Quechua II

A

Cajamarca Quechua
Chincha Quechua
Lambayeque Quechua
Pacaraos Quechua
Yauyos Quechua

B

Inga
Jungle Inga
Chachapoyas Quechua
Napo Lowland Quechua
San Martín Quechua
Southern Pastaza Quechua
Calderón Highland Quichua
Cañar Highland Quichua
Chimborazo Highland Quichua
Imbabura Highland Quichua
Loja Highland Quichua
Northern Pastaza Quichua
Salasaca Highland Quichua
Tena Lowland Quichua

C

Arequipa-La Unión Quechua
Ayacucho Quechua
Chilean Quechua
Classical Quechua
Cusco Quechua
Eastern Apurímac Quechua
North Bolivian Quechua
Puno Quechua
South Bolivian Quechua
Santiago del Estero Quichua

The map above shows approximately where in South America the different subgroups of Quechuan languages are spoken.

Linguists often refer to this type of linguistic situation as a “dialect continuum”.  That is, in many cases, speakers of neighboring dialects of Quechua can easily understand one another, but speakers of dialects that are separated by a greater distance may have a very hard time understanding one another, or not be able to understand one another at all.

The Quechuan language family is like many widely known language families in this respect; scholars have compared the diversity of the Quechuan languages to that of the Slavic language family, the Arabic dialect continuum, and the Romance languages.  In one article, however, Heggarty (2007) suggests that the Quechuan languages probably resemble one another more closely than the Romance languages.  In other words, far apart dialects of Quechua (like Imbabura Quichua and Southern Bolivian Quechua) are probably more similar than far apart dialects of the Romance languages (like Portuguese and Romanian).

References

Heggarty, P. (2007) “Linguistics for Archaeologists: Principles, Methods and the Case of the Incas.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 17, pp. 311-340.  Available here: Heggarty Article.

Lewis, M. P. (ed.) (2009) Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International.  Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.

Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Quechua_(subgrupos).svg