The South American country of Peru is known around the world for its incredible natural environment. Its landscape ranges from stunning mountains to sand dunes to the rich, planet-protecting biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest. Peru is also known as the home of Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan citadel that draws in tourists from around the globe. This fascinating country is also home to an incredibly rich linguistic landscape.
Peru is home to dozens of languages, many of them spoken by remote communities within the Amazon rainforest. Some of those languages are poorly documented and remain unclassified to this day due to lack of interaction between those who speak them and the world beoynd the rainforest.
Below, I’ll take you on a tour of Peru’s languages, from the most widely spoken to those we still know very little about. Let’s jump straight in.
Let’s address the obvious question first. Is Peru Spanish speaking? Yes, very much so. The vast majority of Peru’s population, some 87%, speak Spanish as their native tongue.
The Spanish language arrived in Peru with Spanish colonists/invaders back in 1532. As the colonists increased their occupation of the country, their language spread with them, with a mixture of natural growth and active oppression of local tongues meaning that Spanish has now come to dominate the linguistic landscape of Peru.
In total, around 29 million of Peru’s nearly 33 million residents speak Spanish as their native tongue, with a further 2 million speaking it as a second language.
However, as always when it comes to languages, the situation isn’t as clear cut as all that.
Does Peru speak Spanish? Yes, indeed, but not just one version. There are actually five distinct versions of Spanish spoken in Peru. These dialects change as you cross the country, with speaker numbers falling into four very broad bands running across the country from the northwest to the southeast (with the exception of Equatorial Spanish, whose speakers are clustered mainly in the northwest – more on that below).
To discover more about the varieties of Spanish spoken elsewhere in the world, you can click the link below. To find out more about the dialects of Spanish in Peru, read on.
Read more: Spanish Speaking Countries
As the name implies, Andean Spanish is spoken mainly in the Andes. It is clearly identifiable by its unique rhythm, the sounding of certain vowels and the force with which some consonants are pronounced. In many ways, it is similar to the most commonly spoken Spanish dialects in Bolivia and Ecuador.
Again, the clue is in the name, with Peruvian Coastal Spanish being spoken along the length of the country’s coastline. Many linguists consider this dialect to be one of the ‘purest’ spoken in Latin America and it is viewed as the standard version of the language in Peru.
Interestingly, Andean-Coastal Spanish is a relatively young dialect, in linguistic terms, having originated within the last half-century or so. This variation of the language blends Andean Spanish with the form of the language spoken in Lima. It also contains a fair smattering of newly coined words, slang and influences from the Quechua language.
The influences of the languages of the Amazon can be clearly felt in this Peruvian Spanish dialect, along with a mix of Andean Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Lima.
Equatorial Spanish is spoken mainly in Ecuador, but still has a number of speakers in the very northwestern tip of Peru, in the Tumbes region.
Although Spanish is the country’s primary language, it is not the only Peru official language. The other two official languages in Peru are Quechua and Aymara. Both of these indigenous tongues are protected by the Constitution of Peru.
Though Peru used to be home to hundreds of indigenous languages, today the country’s native tongues show the impact of centuries of suppression and discrimination.
Broadly speaking, Peru’s indigenous languages can be classed as native to the Andes or to the Amazon. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The world’s longest continental mountain range, running through a total of seven countries in South America, the Andes are home to myriad languages. By far the most widely spoken in Peru is…
Around 10% of Peru’s population speak Quechua natively, equating to around 3.5 million individuals. The language is called Runasimi by its speakers, which means “people’s language”.
Quechua was in use across huge swathes of the Andes long before the Inca (who themselves spoke a form of Quechua) began building their empire. Different varieties of Quechua are spoken in Peru and its neighbouring countries, with around eight to ten million speakers of Quechuan languages in total. I’ll go into some of the Quechuan languages and dialects a little later in this article (and if you want more info on the difference between a language and a dialect in the meantime, you can click the link below).
The Quechuan languages make up the most widely spoken pre-Colombian language family in South America, with Quechua initially adopted by many Spanish colonists as a means of communicating with the locals – and converting them to Catholicism. However, after Peru’s indigenous people rebelled under the leadership of Túpac Amaru II in the late 18th century, the language was banned from public use, with colonial officials also dropping its use for religious and administrative purposes.
Fast forward to 1975 and Peru became the first country in South America to give official language status to Quechua. Quechua remains largely a spoken language, which over the years has incorporated hundreds of loanwords from Spanish (just as Peruvian Spanish has been influenced by Quechuan words and phrases). Though Quechua has been incorporated into education in some ways in Peru, the lack of written materials in the language continues to pose problems.
The other Peruvian official language, Aymara, is spoken by just over 1% of Peru’s population, with speaker numbers halving over the past few decades. The language has approximately half a million speakers, many of whom can be found in the southern Peruvian cities of Puno, Moquegua, and Tacna.
Aymara includes many words borrowed from Quechua (and vice versa) and is spoken across the border in Bolivia as well as in Peru.
Another language of the Aymaran family, Jaqaru now has no more than around 700 native speakers. Most of them live in the Lima Region, where the 2,000 or so remaining ethnic Jaqaru migrated.
Kawki is a divergent dialect of Jaqaru, with a lack of contact between speakers of the two languages leading to a notable loss of mutual intelligibility. Kawki had just nine remaining speakers back in 2005, meaning the language will be extinct shortly, if it isn’t already.
Together, Jaqaru and Kawki are referred to as Tupe.
Peru is home to dozens of Amazonian languages, which together have around 105,000 speakers. Speakers are clustered in the north and eastern parts of Peru. Two of the most widely spoken Amazonian languages are Asháninka and Aguaruna.
Asháninka is an Arawakan language spoken in Peru and Brazil by the Asháninka people. It has around 35,000 speakers in total.
In areas in which it is spoken, Asháninka is classed as an official language in Peru, meaning it enjoys protection under the Constitution (this is the same for other languages of Peru that predominate in a given region).
Called Awajún by those who speak it natively, Aguaruna is spoken by around 53,000 people in northern Peru. Literacy rates are high, at between 60% and 90% (literacy rates for Asháninka, by comparison are between 10% and 30%).
Unlike many of the native languages of Peru, Aguaruna has written materials that include a dictionary, albeit a modest one. It is used for schooling alongside Spanish in areas where it is spoken (mainly the eastern foothills of the Andes), meaning that most people who speak Aguaruna natively also speak Spanish as a second tongue.
While it’s not possible to classify or group every language of Peru in a family due to lack of information, we do know that there are more than 15 language families within Peru. These language families include:
• Aru – this language family includes Aymara, Jaqarru and Kawki
• Aruanas – including Kulina in Peru
• Arawak – including Resígaro, Yine, Asháninca, Asheninca, Axininca, Campa de Pajonal, Caquinte, Machiguenga and Nomatsiguenga, plus the extinct Iñapari and Mashko-Piro languages
• Bora-Witoto – including Bora, Muinane, Coixama, Meneca, Murui, Nonuya, Nüpode Witoto and Ocaina
• Cahuapanas – including Jébero and the extinct Cayahuita-Cahuapana language
• Candoshi-Chirino – including Candoshi and Chirino (the latter of which is now extinct)
• Harákmbet – including Amarakaeri and Huachipaeri
• Hibito-Cholón – including Cholón and Hibito
• Jívaras – including Aguaruna, Achuar and Huambisa
• Pano-Tacanas – including Amahuaca, Cashinahua, Sharanahua, Yaminawa, Capanahua, Isconahua, Marubo, Shipibo, Cashibo, Mayo-Pisabo, Mayoruna, Nahua, Esse’ejja and the extinct Arazaire, Atsahuaca, Yamiaca, Pánobo, Remo, Nocamán and Sensi languages
• Peba-Yagua – including Yagua, Peba and Yameo (of which only Yagua still survives)
• Quechua – including Quechua Ancashino, Quechua Huanca, Quechua Yaru, Quechua de Pacaraos, Quechua Cajamarquino, Quechua Incawasi-Cañaris, Quechua Yauyino, Quechua Chachapoyano, Quechua Lamista, Quichua Norteño, Quechua Ayacuchano and Quechua Cuzqueño
• Tallán-Sechura – including Catacaos, Colán, Olmos and Sechura
• Tucanas – including Orejón
• Tupí – including Cocama-Cocamilla and Omagua
• Záparas – including Iquito, Arabela, Conambo (extinct) and Cahuarano, Andoa-Shimigae and Záparo, which are believed to have either died out within the last couple of decades or else be on the brink of doing so
Peru’s Amazon rainforest is also home to a handful of isolated languages. Sadly, many of these languages, along with those that fit into the groups listed above, face imminent extinction. They include Taushiro, Tikuna and Urarina, with Quingnam, Puquina, Culli, Mochica and Munichi already having died out.
Peru’s languages range from having just a couple of speakers to many millions, but how many languages are actually spoken there?
Well, the answer depends on quite how you define a language (versus a dialect). Within the rainforest alone, there are around 40 languages, which encompass well over 100 local variations.
Overall, Peru is home to more than 50 distinct languages. Add dialects into the mix and there are a total of 72 languages in Peru.
This may seem like a lot, but it is only a fraction of the languages that used to be spoken in Peru. Estimates vary widely, but it is believed that Peru was home to somewhere between 300 and 700 native languages prior to the arrival of Spanish.
I’ve talked a lot about Spanish above as it’s the primary language in Peru, but it’s not the only imported tongue that’s spoken there. Travel the length and breadth of Peru and you’ll hear people speaking languages ranging from Arabic to Urdu to French. The latter, in particular, is deeply rooted in the Iquiteña area.
One of the most spoken imported languages is Portuguese, as a result of Peru sharing a land border with Brazil, where 98% of the population speak Portuguese natively (you can click the link below to discover more about the languages of Brazil). Portuguese is particularly prevalent in areas such as Ucayali, Loreto, and Madre de Dios, which lie along the Brazilian border.
It is also increasingly common to hear English spoken in Peru, as global tourism patterns have seen visitors from English-speaking countries flock to enjoy the wonders that Peru has to offer.
Read more: Which Languages Are Spoken in Brazil?
I hope you’ve found this article interesting and informative. I’ve covered everything from what languages are spoken in Peru to what language is spoken in Peru more than any other.
Do you speak one of the languages of Peru that I’ve mentioned above? If so, we would love to hear your views on Peru’s fascinating linguistic heritage. You can leave a comment below to share your insights.
And if you’re hungry for more language facts, why not head over to my article on the languages of South America? You can get to it via the link below.