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.

Speak Your Mind