I grew up in Canada and in the United States. I was always interested in languages. In the communities where I lived, many languages were spoken all the time. I love languages so much, I became a linguistic anthropologist. That’s a person who studies languages from around the world. I’m interested in how languages are used, how they change, and how they connect us to the people around us.
One day when I was in college, I had a crazy idea. Wouldn’t it be interesting to discover a new language? I know. It sounds crazy. Yet, it’s possible.
Languages don’t stay the same. Over time, they change. Some change to the point where a new version is created that is not like anything else that has ever been spoken before. To find such a thing, you have to be at the right place at the right time. I had an idea where I might look: Peru, in South America.
In a region of Peru called Puno, people speak two indigenous languages. An indigenous language is a language that is native to a specific place. It is spoken by the people who live there. Puno’s languages are Quechua and Aymara.
In Puno, people have been speaking Quechua and Aymara for centuries. Today, more than 40 percent of the people there speak Quechua. More than 30 percent speak Aymara. The rest speak Spanish. You hear these languages in the market and at festivals and celebrations. But I wondered if, over time, Quechua and Aymara might have blended together here to become a new language.
Learn a little Quechua or Aymara. Try these useful words and phrases:
How are you?
Puno overlooks Lake Titicaca, the largest, deepest lake in the Andes.
Living the High Life
To test my theory, I packed my backpack with notebooks and my best audio recorder and microphone.
In the southernmost part of the Peruvian Andes, bordering Bolivia, is the Altiplano. In Spanish, this means “high and flat.” It’s a high, dry plateau, home to snow‑capped mountains. It is also home to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.
The communities in Puno are more than 3,800 meters (approximately 2.5 miles) above sea level. You know that this is high because you can feel the effects on your body. There’s less oxygen up there. It makes breathing hard.
I am good.
When I first arrived in Puno, I could feel myself breathing faster and feeling dizzy. Later I felt nauseous and had a headache. These are all symptoms of what people there call sorrocha, or altitude sickness. I quickly learned the local remedy for this: coca tea. I carried the leaves with me and drank the tea in the evenings. After a few days, my body adjusted to the altitude, and I felt better.
That wasn’t the only thing I had to adjust to, though. Being higher in the sky also means that you have less ozone protecting you from the strong ultra violet rays of the sun. People in the Altiplano never go out without their big sun hats that help protect them from the sun’s strong rays.
Mountains loom in the distance of this roadside market.