Quechua has one word for to know and to learn: yachay. “You cannot ever really know something, after all,” my professor says. Even in Spanish, saber (to know) comes from sapere (to taste). It is a flavorful but incomplete action, and we all know it.

I am grateful for this one word, yachay, because learning this language has required more and more self-knowledge with every tense and suffix. We don’t learn vocabulary for the sake of it. We don’t have a textbook with the names of different foods and how to shop for clothes, or what have you. (The language stopped developing in the 1500s, when there were no strip malls or restaurants in the Andes.) Instead we talk until we don’t have words anymore, and our teacher fills them in. The musician in our class wanted to talk about her band, so we learned takiy: to sing. The volunteer wanted to explain her teaching job, so we learned erqekuna: children. This is how you yachay what is important to you. What would be the first thing you asked for words for?

I’m not going to lie: the first thing I learn is always how to talk about soccer. That’s how I make friends anywhere I go. Puqllay futbolta was the first verb I learned after kay, to be. (To this I added one noun, ñañay: the female speaker’s “my sister.”) To play soccer is my go-to verb and it has gotten me halfway across the world.

But then I asked how to explain where I go on Sundays. Riy iglesiaman, to go to church, is the verb that gives me family anywhere I go. And then qhelqay, to etch, to write, to draw, is the verb I asked for so I could explain what I breathe all day.

Three verbs were all I needed to start with but I can already speak a great deal. Our professor is very proud of his language for its directness and its ability to cut out the rhetorical, as you will remember. I am glad for this, too, because it is teaching me how to weed out what is insubstantial. Wordiness is my favorite vice and Quechua won’t allow it. This is the journalistic challenge in a way I can understand it, and I love it more and more every day.

It is no wonder Quechua is such a good teacher; “to teach,” all you have to do is add a variation on the diminutive. Yachachiy, as if to say: learn, my friend.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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