Aymara in Bolivia

Historical Background
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Conflict Type

Peak Years


            Bolivia’s language conflict involves indigenous Aymara speakers and the dominant Spanish speakers (referred to in official Bolivian documents as “Castellano”). The Aymara inhabited the Andes and Lake Titicaca regions in what is now Bolivia when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, and they continue to live there today. Prior to Spanish colonization, Aymara was the most common language in the region, but centuries of conflict and expansion of Spanish suppressed the language [Hardman, 1981]. In the 21st century, the Aymara have begun to reclaim their language and heritage within Bolivia. This movement was recognized in 2009 by a new Bolivian constitution that made Aymara one of the country’s 36 official Indigenous languages. While the conflict is mostly inactive in 2021, racism and systemic inequality remain prominent.

Historical Background

The origins of the Aymara are unknown, with scholars first placing them in the Andes and Lake Titica, or Antiplano, region between 2000 to 900 years ago [Minahan, 2016]. During the 15th century, the region that is now Bolivia was controlled by 12 Aymara-speaking Indigenous groups who fell under the control of the Inca empire. As the Aymara were the largest non-Quechua speaking group, they were allowed to retain their language and culture under Incan rule [Arnade & McFarren, 2020]. When the Spanish arrived in the region between 1524-1533, the Aymara became victims of forced labor practices [Klein, 2011], being viewed as a “pool of unskilled labor for Spanish mines, ranches, and plantations, often as slaves” [Minahan, 2016]. During the battle for Bolivian independence in the early 1800s, during a time of struggle between forces loyal to the Spanish throne and forces of the independence movement, Aymara communities found themselves attacked by both royal and independence forces [Minahan, 2016]. Following the 1825 battle that ended Spanish rule in Upper Peru (as Bolivia was then known), Aymaran lands were divided between Peru and Bolivia. The Aymara relegated to Bolivia faced poor living conditions with no access to education, political expression, or economic opportunities [Minahan, 2016].


The oppression of the Aymara and other Indigenous groups continued well into the 20th century. Bolivian schools and government offices used Spanish exclusively, ultimately leading to most Aymara children having to learn Spanish as their primary language and contributing to Spanish becoming the dominant language of Bolivia [Klein, 2011]. Reforms following the Bolivian Revolution of 1952 established universal suffrage, and granted to the Aymara political rights [Commanding Heights, 2004]. Additionally, while agrarian reform that occurred during this time helped the Aymara economically, they still experienced racism and inequality. Following extreme discrimination that they faced in the 1970s and 1980s, a 1990s cultural movement to affirm Indigenous identity arose, and in 1994, amendments to the 1967 Bolivian Constitution recognized the nation’s multiethnic character [Gigler, 2009]. While Aymara speakers still experience racism and high levels of poverty, the 2006 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Aymara president, has brought visibility and empowerment to their people. The revised Bolivian Constitution of 2009, officially renaming the country The Plurinational State of Bolivia, guaranteed rights to education and government services in languages other than Spanish, meaning at long last that Aymara language rights are currently officially protected by law [Romero, 2009].


The Rise and Fall of Evo Morales

In 2005, Bolivia elected Evo Morales, a member of the Aymara nation and Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. While his administration was riddled with controversy, his status as the first Aymara president marked a significant turning point for Bolivia’s relationship with its Indigenous population.  

In an article in Smithsonian Magazine, journalist Annie Murphy reflects on several interviews she conducted with Morales, where he described feeling afraid to indicate his Aymara status while he was out in La Paz and being bullied for his accented Spanish [Murphy, 2015]. The article goes on to describe the culture change that has occurred since Morales began his Presidency, as Indigenous peoples who live in cities like La Paz are now more connected to their heritage and feel freer to speak their native language in public [Murphy, 2015]. During his term as president, Morales oversaw a new constitution recognizing 36 Indigenous languages as official languages in Bolivia alongside the dominant Spanish [Constitute Project, 2009]. Because of these reforms, government entities are required to offer services in at least one language besides Spanish, depending on which groups live in the area.  

These reforms have not come without criticism. Many in the Indigenous community have criticized them for being surface level and not actually leading to real change, while many of the promised reforms have yet to be made available [Murphy, 2015]. Additionally, Morales’s controversies as a leader have not overly helped Aymara representation. Throughout his Presidency, he was widely criticized as corrupt. This came to a head in 2019 after his administration first attempted to remove presidential terms, and then won re-election by such a suspicious margin that he was forced into exile by the Bolivian military [Watson, 2019]. 

The controversies of Morales as an individual cannot, however, bely the fact that he was an Aymara person elected to the presidency of Bolivia. This was a turning point for Aymara people in Bolivia and their relationship to the dominant culture that speaks Spanish. While the de facto changes have not completely come yet, Morales ushered in many de jure changes that are helping the Aymara people and other Indigenous groups.  

Compare Language Similarities

Language name
Español, Castellano
Spanish, Castilian
Lexical properties
Western Romance
West Iberian
Loanword Sources
French, Occitan, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian
Phonological properties
Special Features
Syllable Types
Any of last 3 syllables; lexical acute accent
Morphosyntactic properties
Word Order
Word Formation
Orthographic properties
Characters/Special Characters
27 (total) / 1

Linguistic Background

  1. Genealogy/Relatedness

Aymara (Aymar aru) is part of the Aymaran language family, but the language known as Aymara is actually the Southern Aymara language, which is more common than the other surviving Aymaran language, Jaqaru, or Central Aymara. Aymara is thought to have originated in Central Peru, in the Andes Mountains, and it is now mostly spoken in the Altiplano region, primarily around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia [Heggarty, 2013]. Aymara is one of two indigenous languages in Bolivia with over a million speakers, the other being Quechua [Instuto Nacional de Estadística, 2012].

Image: Aymara Language Domain (1984). Albó, Xavier; (et al.) (1988), Raices de América: el mundo aymara, 1ª ed., Alianza Editorial. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aymara_language.


Spanish is a Romance language in the Indo-European family, which also includes French, German, and Italian [Posner, 2020]. In Bolivia and other regions in the Andean highlands, Andean Spanish is the dialect spoken primarily.  Aymara and Spanish languages are extremely distant from one another.


  1. Phonetics/Phonology

Aymara includes only three phonemic contrasts of vowel space, one low vowel, one high-front, and one high-back (/a/, /i/, /u/). Each of these can be contrastively lengthened, giving Aymara a six vowel system (/a/, /i/, /u/, /aa/, /ii/, /uu/). The vowel inventory of Spanish includes these three (/a/, /i/, /u/), plus two additional mid vowels (mid-front /e/ and mid-back /o/). With no length contrast, Spanish has a five vowel system [Hualde, 2013]. Aymara includes 26 consonants. The system includes five productive place of articulation contrasts, nasals, fricatives, and three types of stops (voiceless, aspirated, and ejective). Notably, Aymara does not have voiced/voiceless contrast for consonants. While most dialects of Spanish include only 18 consonants, Andean Spanish, the dialect spoken in Bolivia and parts of neighboring countries, includes 19 because a distinction between  /ʎ/ (English “y” in “yes”) and /ʝ/ (English “j” in “John”) is preserved. The influence of Aymara and Quechua on local Spanish is thought to be the reason for this difference [Lipski, 2012].


  1. Morphology and Grammar

Aymaran verbs are complex, as they can be inflected for tense, aspect, modality, and mood, which means there are hundreds of combinations to modify a verb root. Both Spanish and Aymara have past, present, and future tense, but Aymara has a fourth tense that differentiates distant from recent past. Aymara’s future tense is unique because it refers to actions in the past, meaning that in Aymara, the future lies behind and the past lies ahead [Spinney, 2005]. While verbs in Spanish may rely on auxiliaries to express tense, temporal reference in Aymara is expressed morphologically. Aymara verbs can be modified for five aspectual functions, while in Spanish aspect is only differentiated in the past by the preterit and imperfect tenses [Coler, 2014].

Spanish has a three-person pronoun system that includes a formal and informal “you.” Aymara has no differentiation between formal and informal “you,” but it has a fourth person, which is a “you and I,” jiwasa, that is considered singular [Coler, 2014]. The plural form of this fourth person becomes an inclusive “we,” jiwasanaka, that includes the addressee, versus an exclusive “we,” nayanaka, that does not. The Aymara language has several forms of politeness in address, noun verb derivational, inflectional suffixes, and sentence suffixes, thereby possessing a politeness system much more complex than that of Spanish. Spanish only indicates politeness with terms of address and a formal and informal “you” distinction, and so Spanish speakers using Aymara with Aymaran native speakers sometimes forget these forms of politeness and cause offense [Hardman-de-Bautista, 1981]. Additionally, while Spanish nouns are marked for both gender and number, Aymara nouns are not.

Spanish typically employs a subject-verb-object (SVO) order, except in some interrogative statements where it may be VSO. Aymara’s word order is SOV. Additionally, while adjectives usually follow the nouns they modify in Spanish, in Aymara they precede the noun [Coler, 2014].


  1. Lexicon and Vocabulary

The most notable similarity between Aymara and Spanish is extensive lexical borrowing. Andean Spanish typically uses more loans from Aymara and Quechua than other Spanish varieties [Mackenzie, 1999–2020]. Aymara itself features Spanish loanwords that date back to the Spanish conquest of the Andean region. Interestingly, one Aymara loanword, jamasa, from the Spanish jamás, meaning “never”, existed in Aymara before the Spanish word changed from ya más [Coler, 2014]. Both nouns and verbs have been borrowed between the two languages, and many semantic domains have been adjusted to address the semantic field of the other language (e.g., Spanish pie meaning “foot” can refer to the whole leg in Andean Spanish due to Aymara influence; and Spanish siempre (“always") can mean “still” [Hardman-de-Bautista, 1982].

  1. Orthography/Writing System

An official Aymara alphabet that uses Latin script was declared in Bolivia in 1984. Some Aymara people have criticized this alphabet because it was adapted from the Spanish alphabet to fit the sounds heard by Spanish speakers in the Aymara language, and did not reflect all phonetic nuances of the language [Hardman-de-Bautista, 1981]. Attempts to use the traditional Spanish alphabet to represent Aymara necessitated the use of extra letters and diacritics to represent contrasts that Spanish didn’t have. For instance, “h” was added to letters to indicate aspirates (e.g., “ph”) and “ʹ” to represent ejectives (e.g., “pʹ”). In 1984, the Bolivian government introduced an Aymara Official Alphabet, referred to as Único, that represents long and short versions of the 3 vowels and all 26 consonants.

Unified Alphabet (Alfabeto Único) https://omniglot.com/writing/aymara.htm

The Spanish language is written using the Latin script with one additional letter: eñe ⟨ñ⟩, for a total of 27 letters. Spanish uses diacritics to mark the stress over any vowel: ⟨á é í ó ú⟩ [Butt & Benjamin, 2011].


Butt, J., & Benjamin, C. (2011). A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish (5th ed.). Oxford: Routledge.

Coler, M. (2014). A grammar of Muylaq' Aymara: Aymara as spoken in Southern Peru. Leiden: Brill.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2016, June). Aymara. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aymara.

Hardman, M. J. (1981). Aymara language in its cultural and social context. Social science monograph series. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

Hardman-De-Bautista, M. J (1982). The mutual influence of Spanish and the Andean languages. Word 33(1-2), 143-157. DOI: 10.1080/00437956.1982.11435729

Heggarty, P. (2013). Andes: Linguistic history. The Global Prehistory of Human Migration. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Hualde, J. I. (2013). Los sonidos del español (Spanish Language edition) (The Sounds of Spanish). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hudson, R. A., & Hanratty, D. A. (Eds.). (1991). Bolivia: A country study, 3rd ed. Federal Research Division - Library of Congress. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/90026427/.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Bolivia (Bolivian National Institute of Statistics) (2012). Censo de Población y Vivienda 2012 (Population and Housing Census 2012). Retrieved from http://anda.ine.gob.bo/index.php/catalog/8.

Lipski, J. M. (2012). Geographical and Social varieties of Spanish: An overview. The Handbook of Hispanic Linguistics, 1-26. doi:10.1002/9781118228098.ch1.

Mackenzie, I. (1999-2020). “Andean Spanish.” The Linguistics of Spanish. Retrieved July 25, 2021.

Posner, R, & Sala, M. (2020, May 6). Spanish language. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Spanish-language

Spinney, L. (2005, February 24). How time flies. The Guardian. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/feb/24/4


Posted:  Sept 2021

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Contributing Analysts:  Aidan Thomason

Editors: Gareth Rees-White, Elena Galkina