I’ve been reading about ancient Peru and the “Nasca Lines” (yes, that Wikipedia article uses the spelling Nazca, but as far as I can tell the Peruvians use Nasca, and that’s good enough for me), and that inevitably involved mention of the Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe who discovered them in 1927, and that stopped me dead in my tracks. What kind of name (I wondered) was Xesspe, and (more importantly) how was it pronounced? SES-pe? KHES-pe? SHES-pe? Naturally I did a video search, but I was frustrated repeatedly by clips that mentioned him in the description but turned out to have nothing but music on the soundtrack (I got very sick very quickly of the sound of panpipes — it seems to be impossible to show images of Peru without assaulting you with them). The culmination was finding a five-minute video all about him (paydirt, I naively thought) which turns out to be a cartoon with all the information given in writing and nothing but music on the soundtrack (reader, I cursed loudly). So I turn to the assembled multitudes: does anyone happen to know how the name is properly pronounced, or at least pronounced by Peruvians?


  1. John Cowan says

    It’s Quechua q’ispi ‘transparent’ or as a noun, ‘crystal, glass’. (Quechua [e] is an allophone of /i/ used adjacent to uvulars.) Spanish scribes wrote it as xespe in the north, quispe in the south, and qespe in the middle, and all of these are recorded or in use as surnames. Xesspe would reflect Old Spanish spelling, where ss = /s/ but s = /z/, until all voiced fricatives lost their voicing in the 16C.

    But how Peruvians say the name today I could not tell you. The Spanish-speakers at least probably don’t do ejective uvular stops.

  2. Thanks! I guessed it might be Quechua, but didn’t know.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    They also spell the city Cusco and not Cuzco. Although a South American would pronounce both spellings the same a Madrileño wouldn’t, and they probably don’t want to hear the Madrileño pronunciation. I would guess that the same consideration would apply to Nazca.

  4. The Latin American speaker in this Forvo recording pronounces it with an initial /s/, but he is apparently not from Peru.

    I tried looking up some documentaries about the Nazca Lines in Spanish, but all the ones I clicked on were narrated in European Spanish.

  5. Same here, and (like a good latinoamericano) I disliked the “Nathca” pronunciation. I guess initial /s/ is to be expected from Spanish-speakers; it’s what I would use if forced to say it aloud.

  6. Christopher Culver says

    “That Wikipedia article uses the spelling Nazca, but as far as I can tell the Peruvians use Nasca, and that’s good enough for me”

    When I traveled southwestern Peru, I saw both spellings wildly intermingled on signage in the area. I remember several other cases of confusion of z and s on things produced by Peru’s lower classes.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    “That wikipedia article uses the spelling Florence, but as far as I can tell the Florentines use Firenze, and that’s good enough for me.” Dude, if you want to respect the locals, post in Spanish and/or Quechua (or Qichwa or Qhichwa etc etc). If you’re going to post in English, don’t be embarrassed to write in English.

  8. What are you on about? I’ve seen both forms in English, dude, so I looked for a tie-breaker.

  9. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Max Alejandro Melgar Vásquez wrote an article on “El Legado de Toribio Mejía Xesspe” that ends with a discussion of this very point.

    Es frecuente hasta ahora escuchar ciertos comentarios un tanto condenatorios sobre el apellido de don Toribio, en el sentido de que se cambió de Quispe a Xesspe, por vergüenza y como que dicho supuesto cambio hubiera sido incorrecto. Pero en realidad es al revés: el pronunciamiento original de dicho apellido ancestral (que significa, brillante, reluciente, naciente) es exactamente como don Toribio lo reivindica: Xesspe, o Xespe, o Ccespe o Qespe, o jespe; y en tal sentido la escritura y el pronunciamiento impuesto de Quispe, no es necesariamente el más correcto. Y no se le puede atribuir vergüenza de lo nativo, porque de haber sido así, no le hubiera puesto por nombre a sus hijos: Titu Cusi, Amaru y Willka Nina, ni se hubiera dedicado, como ha dedicado toda su vida, a la reivindicación de nuestra cultura andina milenaria. Es más, no olvidemos que además de su probado ejercicio profesional arqueológico (y antropológico, etnográfico, etc.) él fue realmente un experto en lingüística nativa peruana, a través de cuya investigación ha realizado personalmente y con Tello una serie de trabajos al respecto, utilizando muy frecuentemente, como parte de una pronunciación correcta, la letra x ; siendo por ello reconocido por otros profesionales por esa su pericia lingüística; que por lo demás, no es sino la confirmación de lo que el propio Cieza de León ya había recogido tempranamente en cuanto al uso frecuente la X para una serie de vocablos del quechua o runasimi original. De tal modo que, lo que en todo caso T.M.X. hizo, fue corregir y reivindicar el verdadero sentido, escritura y pronunciamiento de su apellido: Xesspe

    The article also explains that Mejía Xesspe grew up “totalmente quechua hablante,” so surely both he and his mother pronounced her surname in Quechua. The article seems to give up on Spanish-speakers getting the first consonant right, but doesn’t seem to offer /s/ as an approximating option. I reckon it’s offering /ks/, /x/ and probably /k/, though I could be missing some implication of writing “qespe” instead of the regular “quespe.”

    The full article is here: https://docplayer.es/47590196-El-legado-de-toribio-mejia-xesspe.html

  10. It’s just so wonderful that totalmente quechua hablante Peruvian archaeologist discovered Nasca lines.

    Are there any totally Coptic speaking archaeologists in Egypt?

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Is it possible that the sound is one not easily writable in Spanish, e.g. Kh (where “h” is rough breathing) or K’ (as in the Arabic pronunciation of Iraq, Farouk, etc.)?

  12. Are there any totally Coptic speaking archaeologists in Egypt?

    Since Coptic in Egypt is, as I understand it, basically used only liturgically, I suspect that’s a bit like asking if there are any totally Latin speaking archaeologists in Italy. (Maybe some Jesuits?)

    (Quechuan languages are spoken by something like 20% of the Peruvian population, so it’s a rather different situation.)

  13. Max Alejandro Melgar Vásquez wrote an article on “El Legado de Toribio Mejía Xesspe” that ends with a discussion of this very point.

    Thanks very much! But yes, it’s frustrating that there’s no attempt to say how the first consonant should be pronounced.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    This gives a number of non-Spanish k and q phonemes.
    has following para:
    ” As Spanish does not have uvular [q], traditional spellings lose this distinction (although sometimes a double cc was used to represent the k-like sounds of Quechua that differed from the “plain k” sound known in Spanish; e.g., in place names such as Ccarhuacc, Chopcca, Cconocc, Llacce, Manyacc, Chihuilluyocc, Chilcahuaycco, etc.), and Quechua or Aymara sources must be consulted to select the right consonant.”
    So: ask a Quechua speaker!

  15. Are there any totally Coptic speaking archaeologists in Egypt?

    No one speaks Coptic unilingually, of course. But Pahor/Bahur Labib who compiled the first Coptic-Arabic dictionary was trained in archaeology.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Are there any totally Coptic speaking archaeologists in Egypt?

    When I went to Birmingham in 1970 there was an Egyptian PhD student, who was, I was told, a Coptic Christian. I never enquired whether she spoke or understood Coptic.

  17. I asked a Peruvian coworker and he says it like “Cespe”, as in “Cespedes”.

  18. Thanks!

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I discussed this business of Coptic-speaking with a Coptic colleague a few years ago. He himself knew the Lord’s Prayer and a few bits of the liturgy in Coptic; most of the Coptic service is in fact in Arabic.

    The Coptic dialect used is Bohairic; it’s pronounced pretty much as if it were modern Greek, i.e. it doesn’t directly reflect the phonology of the language when it was last actually spoken. (My colleague was gratifyingly impressed that I could recite the Lord’s Prayer in Sahidic, but he wouldn’t have known what it was if I hadn’t told him.)

    There are apparently enthusiasts who have tried to raise bilingual Coptic-speaking children, but this is most definitely Cornish-style (attempted) revival, not survival. Reports of widespread success look awfully like wishful thinking (more’s the pity.) There’s no credible evidence for the survival of Coptic as an L1 into the last few centuries, let alone until modern times. Reports to the contrary evaporate on examination.

    I believe that there are held to be quite a lot of Coptic influences on Egyptian Arabic, but I know next to nothing about Arabic dialectology. Lameen might well very know something to the point.

  20. By the time Pope Cyril IV of Alexandria (r. 1854-1861) decided to introduce education in the Coptic language, it had ceased to be spoken natively, at least to the knowledge of those who sought to revive it. So they decided to follow the contemporary Greek pronunciation of the corresponding letters, partly because of the discussions at the time (since abandoned) about unifying the Coptic and Greek Orthodox Churches of Alexandria. This “Greco-Bohairic pronunciation” is the one most Coptic Christians today will recognize as the “traditional” pronunciation of Coptic.

    In the 1960s, Emil Maher (later Father Shenouda Maher published a reconstruction of the pronunciation of Coptic as it was spoken in its late Bohairic stage, and this “Old Bohairic pronunciation” won some following with the support of Pope Shenouda III. The result is that there are two competing pronunciations for Coptic in use today, and endless debate whether we should write Shenoute or Shenouda for instance.

    This is why I wrote the name of the Coptic scholar in my previous comment as Pahor/Bahur Labib. Ⲡⲁϩⲱⲣ (from ⲁⲡⲁ ϩⲱⲣ) is Pahor in Greco-Bohairic, but Bahūr in Old Bohairic and Egyptian Arabic.

  21. Fascinating — I didn’t know about the competing pronunciations!

  22. I own a Folkways record of Coptic liturgical chants that came with a booklet (now, alas, lost) with text, romanization, and translation. I spent some happy times with it. (Fine chanting, too.) Which pronunciation is is that goes, e.g., “Hiten ni-presvia nte ti-Seotokos esowaab Maria”?

  23. now, alas, lost

    I feel your pain — a terrible loss indeed!

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    @rodger C
    I suppose you have tried
    Seotokos = theotokos, so the non-greek Version?
    The specific text you refer to seems to be here:

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    I think that’s actually the Greekoid pronunciation (presumably with /s/ for the difficult /θ/ sound.) The actual original Bohairic pronunciation would have been as aspirated t; Maher’s (which I’d forgotten about) would be like Arabic t.


  26. Makes sense. I think /θ/ > /s/ in Egyptian Arabic, right?

  27. I think in Egyptian Arabic /θ/ tends to merge with /t/ in inherited terms, but /s/ is used in more learned terms borrowed from literary Arabic. In any case, /s/ would be the expected substitution for the foreign sound /θ/.

    In Old Bohairic and Egyptian Arabic, the element corresponding to Greek Theo- most often becomes Taw-, which is why the current Coptic pope is Tawadros II, equivalent to Theodore.

  28. Tupaq Rousseau says

    J.W. Brewer, “Spanish and/or Quechua (Qichwa or Qhichwa etc etc)” the languages real name is Runasimi “peoples language”, Quechua is a made up pronunciation of Qhapaq which means “royal” as in Qhapaq Ñan “royal road”. If you want to be an ass at least be a smart one

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Yeah, and I speak Welsh. I would call it by its One True Name, Cymraeg, but I don’t want to leave you floundering in my wake as you struggle to understand me.

    Do you speak Español and Français too? I’m envious.

  30. On the etymology of quechua, there is a discussion here by F. H. Adelaar and Pieter C. Muysken (2004) The Languages of the Andes, p. 179. (I hope this link works for you all.)

    Thomas Ward The Formation of Latin American Nations: From Late Antiquity to Early Modernity (2018), p. 140, fills some of this out with considerably more detail (with reference to the decline of the ‘private language’ thought to be the original ethnic language of the Inca elite):

    As a consequence, this private language may have been, or became, gynecocentric. It may have been passed down in the domestic sphere from mother to child while the men increasingly used Qheswa in the public sphere for matters of state, reciprocity, and good living. Alternatively, perhaps Mayachac Azuay’s language was yet another being stirred into the linguistic melting pot of the Andes. This cannot be proven or disproven with the present state of knowledge regarding these contested documents. However, the fact that the Inkakunas’ private language disappeared with them offers another reason to conclude it was the language of their ethnic nation of origin, as it was not spoken by others from outside the Inka group who would have been able to carry on with that linguistic medium. This trajectory still does not explain, however, why they would relegate their own ethnic language to the domestic sphere where the qelqakamayoqkuna resided, while simultaneously appropriating Qheswa for the public sphere where the khipukamayoqkuna resided.

    To conjecture about Qheswa and its relationship to the private language, we must turn to a curious circumstance in Inkan history as related by Inca Garcilaso. We have stated the Inkakuna did not call the General Language by any other name. But curiously, Cieza de Leon, Guaman Poma de Ayala, and Inca Garcilaso talk about a group from Andahuaylas distinct from the Inkakuna, whose ethnonym surprisingly was Qheswa! (See map 6.) Cieza de Leon, writing fifty years before Garcilaso, talks of these “Qheswakuna, [a] very ancient nation” (Quichuas nascion muy antigua) (CP-1era XC, fol. 115v, p. 254). Guaman Poma, referring to both the society of late antiquity as well as the colonial visitas, or inspections, which provided him with first-hand experience, comments on the existence of “Qheswan Indians” (yndios Quichiuas), and in the case of the visitas he mentions “Qheswa ayllu” (allo Quichiua) (PNC, 267 [269]; 676 [690]). In another place he talks about “the province of the Aymaraes and Qheswakuna” (la prouincia de los yndios Aymarays y Quichiuas) (PNC, 431 [433]). Again, Qheswa is used as an ethnonym for that ancient nation, but not as a glottonym for that nation’s language.

    Who were these Qheswakuna? Garcilaso goes into some detail as he explains how Qosqo’s rulers brought the Qheswakuna into the Inka fold. What the author reveals about Inkakuna and their relationship to Qheswakunais just as interesting as what he does not say about it. He explains that the Inka Qhapaq Yupanki sent his brother Awki Titu as emissary to two provinces called Cotapampa and Cotanera, “both of the nation called Qheswa” (ambas de la nacion llamada Quechua) (see map 6). Later, regarding their integration into Tawantinsuyo, Garcilaso will refer to this region as the “province called Qheswa” (la provincial llamada Quechua) in the Cuntisuyo district (CR, III, xii; IV, xxv). Guaman Poma’s mention of these people who are constituted as an ayllu substantiates Garcilaso’s insistence on them in his text. That all three chroniclers use the term Qheswa (albeit with different spellings) as an ethnonym seems to confirm the Qheswakuna’s existence as an ayllu, province, or nation. Guaman Poma’s use of the term “ayllu” to talk about a people Cieza and Garcilaso call a “nacion” says something about how European terminology supersedes Andean terminology.

    Here is the passage from Pedro Cieza de León (1553) treating on the Chanca people, which mentions the Quichua:

    Preguntándoles yo a estos Chancas, que sentían de si propios y donde tuvo principio su origen: cuentan… conquistaron, hasta llegar a una parte que nombran Chuquibamba; a donde hicieron su asiento. Y pasados algunos años contendieron con los Quichuas nación muy antigua y señores que eran de esta provincia de Andabaylas, la cual ganaron

    Original here (middle of first column on page 231 of the pdf). The passage in which Inca Garcilaso de la Vega mentions la nación llamada Quechua in his Commentarios reales de los Incas (1609), book III, chapter 12, is here. (Early translation here.)

  31. Great stuff, thanks!

  32. @David Eddyshaw: In John Christopher‘s Beyond the Burning Lands, the ruler of Wales is King Cymru. In fact, all the kings of Wales have been named Cymru, apparently since time immemorial. (As indicated in the book’s title, in the setting’s dystopian medieval future there is a nearly impassable region of volcanoes that separates England from Wales. I’m not sure if it specifies where the exactly the volcanoes are, but Cymru’s court—on the Welsh side, obviously—is in the north at Llangollen.)

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    Hah! An obvious misparsing of Brenin Cymru “King of Wales” … evidently Christopher has simply misunderstood the Welsh of his primary sources.

    The volcanoes sound like a Plaid plot.

  34. The passage from Adelaar and Muysken linked by Xerîb:

    At first, the language of the Inca administration was referred to as the ‘General Language of the Inca’ (la lengua general del Inga). The Santo Tomás grammar of 1560 is said to contain the first mention of the name Quechua in print (Cerrón-Palomino 1987a: 32). There are no indications that the term was already in use before the Spanish invasion, but neither is there any reason to assume that Santo Tomás would have been the inventor of it. Actually, he wrote Quichua, a spelling that may have reflected the pronunciation used in the Lima region.

    The name Quechua was possibly derived from a native term referring to the temperate altitude zone roughly situated between 2,500 and 3,500 metres and to its inhabitants (*qič̣wa, modern Cuzco Quechua qʰiswa).⁷ The initial consonant q of this word, a uvular stop or fricative, triggers the lowering of the adjacent high vowel i to a mid [e]. Hence Quechua instead of Quichua. At present, the name of the language is no longer associated with the climatic term (if ever it was). In most Quechua dialects the language is referred to as kičwa, whereas Spanish speakers say either Quechua [kéčuwa], in Peru and Bolivia, or Quichua [kíčuwa], in Ecuador and Argentina. Another term for the Quechua language which seems to have emerged during the colonial epoch is runa simi ‘language of man/people’ (with as dialectal variants nuna šimi in central Peru and runa šimi in Ecuador). Further discussion of the origin of the names for the Quechua language can be found in Cerrón-Palomino (1987a: 31–7) and in Mannheim (1991: 6–9).

    Modern denominations meant to designate specific Quechua dialects are Huanca for the dialects of the Huancayo–Jauja area in the department of Junín in central Peru, Inga or Ingano for the dialect of Caquetá and Nariño in Colombia, and Cuzco for the dialect of Santiago del Estero in Argentina⁸. In Ecuador we also find inga šimi ‘Inca language’ and yanga šimi ‘useless language’. Most other dialects are referred to in the linguistic literature by means of a geographic epithet, such as the name of a town, a province or a country (Cuzco Quechua, Ancash Quechua, Bolivian Quechua, etc.). In the present-day Andean society it is a common practice to refer to speakers of the different Quechua dialects as if they were all speakers of the same language.

    ⁷ There is an alternative explanation. The chronicler Cieza de León (1553: Part I, chapter 90) informs us about an ethnic group called the Quichua, who were established in the present-day department of Apurimac. Garcilaso de la Vega (1609: Book III, chapters 11 and 12) refers to them as Quechua and situates them in the northeastern part of Apurimac. Neighbours of the Quichua/Quechua were the Aimara, who probably gave their name to the Aymara language.

    ⁸ The speakers of Santiago del Estero (Santiagueño) Quechua are called cuzqueros.

  35. Here’s Mannheim, The Language of the Inka since the European Invasion (many references omitted). It’s interesting to compare his view, informed by comtemporary Quechua views, with Ward’s, informed by old written sources.

    First, labels for speech varieties could designate social contrasts. Historical sources frequently contain the expression hawa simi, which could be used for ‘speech of the puna,’ ‘speech of outsiders to my group’ with the speaker taken as the point of reference, or ‘non-Cuzco speech’ taking the elites of Tawantinsuyu as the reference point. This fits well with evidence from other social domains in which Southern Peruvian Quechua speakers evaluate social and ecological distinctions in terms of an opposition between ukhu ‘inside’ and hawa ‘outside.’ The opposition between ukhu and hawa was important in the political organization and marriage system of the Inkas. The opposition between ukhu and hawa also represents a core feature of Quechua topography, especially for cultural geography and the vocabulary of body parts. The interpretation of the term hawa in its social sense, and so of hawa simi in its linguistic sense, depends upon the point of reference of ukhu ‘inside.’ The entire opposition could be understood from the point of view of either the speaker (‘my speech’ versus ‘the speech of others’) or of a socially determined center (Inka elites versus nonelites). It is therefore not possible to determine a precise referent for the colonial expression hawa simi.

    Second, as an ecological contrast, linguistic varieties spoken in the warmer valleys, or *qhechwa (modern qheswa or qheshwa), were opposed to those of the high plateau, puna, and were called *qhechwa simi ‘valley speech’. This is the likely source of the modern name of the language. For Quechua speakers, the qheswa zone is conceptually ukhu ‘inside’ as opposed to the puna hawa ‘outside’; thus the spatial terms could also be applied to ecologically differentiated varieties of the language. The ecological distinction could be used on another level to oppose Quechua as the prototypically valley (qheswa) language to the prototypically high plateau (puna) language, Aymara, with which Quechua speakers have been in contact for perhaps more than a millennium. The authors of many of the early missionary grammars, dictionaries, and collections of sermons assumed that the valley speech of the Inka capital could be taken as a standard for the speech of the surrounding areas. They therefore based their works on the speech of qheswa people.

    Third, any regional form of the language may be designated by the place name followed by the word simi, for example Qosqo simi, “the speech of Cuzco” (la lengua del Cuzco, in the early Spanish accounts). In Quechua culture, language is associated with territory. Southern Peruvian Quechua speakers identify themselves individually with their place of origin and trace that connection to a mythic emergence from the earth in a particular place. In Inka dynastic mythology, the culture hero who founded the royal dynasty was said to have ordered the groups that emerged from different places to speak differently. Modern Quechua speakers assert that their speech comes from the local water.

  36. Very interesting indeed!

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