Quechua number names are commonly used in figures of speech, puns, idioms, and metaphors, which means they are given additional cultural meaning through their frequent use in informal discourse (conversations, stories, etc.). Quechua is used primarily in the household and within the village, while Spanish is used more in the city, in marketing, and in the presence of mestizos. In general, Spanish tends to replace Quechua in those settings in which money, with its fixed units and (relatively stable) values, is the primary focus of communication (Urton 1997:40). However, this does not mean that Quechua numbers somehow aren’t as “good” as Spanish numbers. Rather, they preserve original Quechuan culture through the associations they have gained in discourse.
The use of numbers in Quechuan society gives number words and numerical concepts meanings that are drawn not only from their quantitative semantics (i.e. the simple facts that they mean 1, or 2, or 3, etc.), but also from their added dimension of meaning and relevance through the influence of their quantitative meanings. The language of numbers, arithmetic, and mathematics does not appear to have undergone significant changes through the ages (Urton 1997:11). A good example that shows the cultural and social relations of numbers in Quechua is number symbolism. For instance, kanchis “seven” is considered to be something of a rascally character (compare that with seven’s association with luck in western culture); in Quechuan number symbolism, 7 is the very image of excess, compulsiveness, and by extension bad behavior. Meanwhile sukta “six” in Quechua is regarded as an optimal and harmonious number (compare that with how 6 is often associated with something ominous in western culture). The originality of Quechuan number symbolism can be understood when we look into the cultural connotations conveyed by each number.
Quechua Numbers and Their Connotations
Quechua has distinctive terms for the numbers from one to ten. The terms are “distinctive” in the sense that none of them is formed as the result of the combining two (or more) terms within the sequence. For example, pusak “8” is distinctive because it is not chusku-chusku “4-4”. Shown here are the first ten numbers in Cusco Quechua, along with Imbabura Quichua numbers in parentheses:
2 iskay (ishkay)
3 kinsa (kimsa)
4 tawa (chusku)
5 phishqa (picha)
7 kanchis (kanchis)
8 pusak (pusak)
9 iskun (iskun)
10 chunga (chunga)
1. Uj “one” has connotations of loneliness and solitude (e.g. “one-eyed”). Iconographically, uj often refers to “needle of a scale,” “hook,” “the beak,” and “something firmly planted” (=1).
2. Iskay “two” indicates a concept of “pair” and iconographically, refers to “duck” (=2).
3. Kinsa “three” is considered a “pivotal” number in counting by dozens. The number is considered the most harmonious and optimal, and so it is seen as a basic unit for counting (=3).
4. Tawa “four” is often used in referring to a person who is romantically charming.
5. Phishqa “five” iconographically means “sickle.”
6. Sukta “six” is regarded as an optimal number, since it is the doubled number of the pivotal number kim (3). This can be seen in its usages in expressions such as “the good/proper way.” Traditional Quechuan culture regarded six as being the appropriate number of children to have.
7. Kanchis “seven” is associated with bad things. It often associates with bad luck, the devil, ugliness, destruction, confusion, licentiousness, etc. Traditionally, it is believed that the month of August is bad (presumably seventh month from the very first month), but August 7th is very bad (it is considered the best day to seek protection against bad influences and bad luck). Interestingly, the expression kanchis, kanchis, kanchis refers to sound made by a braying donkey.
8. Pusak “eight” iconographically indicates the shape of “branching/bifurcated eyes,” etc.
9. Iskun “nine” indicates one/single-headed, the posture of someone with upper trunk bent over, etc. It also refers to someone who lacks one thumb (10-1=9)
10. Chunga “ten” implies that things are complete and often refers to a capable person, or one who can do things very rapidly.
Thus, the numerical explanation of the nature of kanchis begins from the fact that “three” (kinsa) is considered to be the number of wholeness and completeness (for example, events often happen incycles of three repetitions). The number “six” (sukta) constitutes two full units or cycles of three; however, seven is now exposed as “excessive,” for seven is one number/unit in excess of what is considered to be sufficient, whole, and (doubly) complete. It is not surprising, then, to find that the braying of a donkey is often likened to the loud repetition of the word for seven: “kanchis, kanchis, kanchis!” The excessiveness of 7 is here attuned perfectly to the insistent braying of a foolish animal, the donkey.
The meaning associated with Quechuan numbers shows that numbers in general across cultures should not be considered as being separated from the wider linguistic, social, and cultural settings in which they are used; instead, they have additional meanings that are imparted by each of those different settings.
This article is excerpted and summarized from The Social Life of Numbers: A Quechua Ontology of Numbers and Philosophy of Arithmetic (Gary Urton 1997, University of Texas Press, pp. 39-65). Urton had worked in a community near Cusco, Peru and Sucre, Bolivia.