Linguistics and Friendship: the Work of Janis Nuckolls with Luisa Cadena

Janis Nuckolls shares her love for the Quechua people and the research she has done on their language and ideophones.

PROVO, Utah (Jan. 26, 2017)—Janis Nuckolls harbors a deep respect for the Amazonian Quechua people of Ecuador. Quechua is known as the language of the Incas who were  traditionally a mountainous people, but the people Nuckolls studies live in the lowlands.  “They’re kind of mysterious, we don’t really know how the language got to the Amazonian forest because the Incas never got that far,” explained Nuckolls. “For a long time these people weren’t even recognized to be a separate people with a culture that is distinct from the Highlands.”

Nuckolls, a professor of linguistics and English language at BYU, recently published Lecciones de una mujer fuerte Quechua: ideofonía, diálogo y perspectiva, the Spanish version of her book My Lessons from a Quechua Strongwoman, Ideophony, Dialogue and Perspective which was originally published by the University of Arizona Press. Her work features the stories of Luisa Cadena, a Quechua woman she met on one of her trips to Ecuador.

The village where Nuckolls studied Quechua is very remote and she had to charter planes to get there. “I only met [Luisa] because I was waiting for an airplane out of the village and she was also,” said Nuckolls. “She was in the process of transitioning from that village to a larger town where she could send her kids to school.”

From their first meeting, Cadena became extremely important in the research of Nuckolls. “She’s been my very important consultant ever since I was writing my dissertation. We became very good friends and I really started understanding the language because of her great ability to tell very engaging stories,” explained Nuckolls.

Part of Nuckolls’ interest in Quechua is studying the functions of ideophones, which are words that offer a vivid sensory impression through sound, movement, shape or action. Nuckolls described it as painting a word picture–even though they are words, they function as images which communicate not only with sounds but with gestures as well. Quechua, in particular, is full of ideophones that may also function grammatically, to comment on the completeness or ongoingness of an action, giving the language a lively and expressive quality.

“It’s not that their vocabulary is inadequate, it is a different form of communication.” explained Nuckolls. “Ideophones are underdeveloped in European languages possibly, in part because we tend not to gesture a lot and ideophones are often accompanied by gestures. We tend to think of people who gesture a lot as overly emotional.”

Luisa Cadena uses many ideophones in her storytelling, which is part of what makes her stories so engaging. “I’m sure I don’t know all her stories, even though I have over 800 pages of transcriptions of her stories. She’s just the kind of person who experiences life with real enthusiasm; she just seems to have a talent for leading an interesting life,” said Nuckolls.

Through Lessons from a Quechua Strongwoman, Ideophony, Dialogue and Perspective, Cadena, as a rural, illiterate woman, is given a voice in circles she would not be a part of otherwise. Nuckolls continued, “She doesn’t wield her own political influence. I want her to be the speaker because she doesn’t have all these trappings of power that a lot of people, who would love to be and claim to be spokespeople [for the Quechua] have.”

In her most recent trip to Quito, Ecuador, Nuckolls saw her book of Luisa’s stories on the shelf of a bookstore next to a variety of important anthropological works on the peoples of Ecuador. “I am really pleased my friend is placed in that category,” commented Nuckolls. “People like my friend Luisa are incredibly intelligent and are so knowledgeable about nature and their environment, they know how to survive.”

When asked when she would next see Cadena, Nuckolls smiled, saying that she and ten students would be going on a study abroad to Ecuador this summer to study Quechua. “Luisa is one of our major professors. Even though she’s not formally educated, she teaches us a lot and she loves being a teacher. It’s a real honor that I am able to be her friend and work with her.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Linguistics Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.   

Image of Professor Nuckolls and Luisa Cadena