Book: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
Section: Chapter 11 (Page 350 to 380)
Usurpers of Greatness
The most widespread language at the time in Central America was Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and the Toltecs before them, which had spread across much of what is now Southern Mexico. Linguists as well as Aztec beliefs describe how Nahuatl may have been a branch of an old family that stretched from southern Mexico all the way to the tribes of Oregon. Starting as vagrants and nomad gatherers, the early Mexicans would eventually build what is now Mexico City on an island in a lake and come to conquer all of the surrounding kingdoms. Nahuatl became the lingua franca of this new empire, and would spread as the Aztecs required all cities to have a corps of translators to allow for easy conversing over large areas. There were also migrations around the empire by native speakers, spreading the language more. The Incan language, Quechua, on the other hand, spread early not through conquest but as a trade language, long before the rise of the Incan Empire in Peru. It was not the first language of the Inca, who started as a village in Bolivia that migrated to Cuzco and spoke Aymara, whose ancestors are still spoken in Bolivia. They adopted Quechua after the union of the wealthy Chincha and Incan states. This caused a merger of several languages in Cuzco, making a dialect found solely in Cuzco. The Incan Emperors would make sure this spread by forcing all newly conquered lands to learn and spread the language of Cuzco, making it the clear lingua franca of the region. There were also some forced migrations of Quechua speakers to newly conquered lands to pacify natives.
Other languages of the Americas were Chibcha, which spread to be the lingua franca of Colombia, and which several conquistadors used interpreters to understand as some of the first languages encountered. Chibcha was likely established simply by the migration of speakers to Colombia. There was also the Tupi-Guarani of Brazil and the Mapuche of Chile. There is a clear correlation between the political unity of a language and its development of literacy after Spanish arrival, as Nahuatl and Quechua developed written language very quickly. The other languages never even developed their own literature. Spanish found that in areas with no lingua franca, Spanish had to be spread to teach Christianity, but in areas such as Mexico with one, they could use the lingua franca of the area to teach scripture rather than attempt to teach Spanish to huge populations and then convert them. In small communities, native languages slowly died out in South and Central America, while in larger communities they flourished. Nahuatl did very well, staying in common use in Mexico for centuries as indigenous populations ruled themselves for a long time using their own bureaucracy, even after Spanish conquest. Quechua, on the other hand, was seen as the language of the oppressors, and peasants stopped using it and rose up in rebellion several times. Guarani is the only one of the languages to receive permanent recognition as an official national language in Paraguay. After ten generations, in the 19th century, Spanish speakers were still outnumbered 3 to 1, which frustrated many Spaniards. There were several royal decrees to little effect forcing Spanish, but in the end when the government started only using Spanish to address natives, Spanish started to become more dominant. Funnily enough, the separatist movements of the 19th century, which often tied their separate identity to the natives, were key players in suppressing native languages, except in Paraguay, which is notedly bilingual. In the Philippines, after the loss to the Americans in the Spanish-American War, Spanish essentially died out in the region due to the rising economic power of America and by extension the English language.