Chipaya belongs to the Uru-Chipaya language group which was first documented in the early colonial period (mid 16th century) on the high plateaus called Altiplano in the Southern Central Andes (in what today is Bolivia and Peru) along what has been called the “aquatic axis” (Wachtel), extending from Lake Titicaca, along the Desaguadero River, to the shores of Lake Poopó, as well as north of Lake Coipasa, and in some other areas south of it.
The genetic relationship within this group has been described hypothetically in terms of a language family in which the northern variety became separated from the southern variety around 200 BC. However, this assumption is based on lexical evidence only and has therefore to be considered as preliminary. The team has found evidence which suggests a very close relationship between the Irohito and Chipaya varieties.
The earliest language documentation dates back to the end of the 19th century. There are a number of small vocabulary lists for Uru-Chipaya, mainly made by non-linguists. Some texts and grammatical notes exist on the Uru spoken around Lake Titicaca (Vellard, Muysken). For the variety spoken in Santa Ana de Chipaya there is a phonological study, an alphabet and a short tagmemic grammatical sketch made in the 1960s (Olson, SIL), descriptive work by a Peruvian linguist (Cerrón-Palomino, dictionary and grammar in preparation) and a few published texts (Métraux; Porterie-Gutiérrez, posthumously edited). Additional material on both varieties was gathered and analysed by Lehmann and Uhle (unpublished, currently work on these materials is being carried out by Hannß).
On the basis of the existing evidence Uru-Chipaya can be considered an agglutinating language which, however, seems to have some uncharacteristic features of this language type (preliminary observation by the DOBES team). Strong Aymara influence can be noticed on the lexical and to a certain extent on the grammatical level.
The only group that has retained its language are the Chipaya north of Lake Coipasa (Dep. Oruro, Bolivia). As opposed to the other groups that formerly spoke the language and who only maintain vocabulary items, in the community of Chipaya with its ca. 1,800 inhabitants the language is fully functional and used in daily life by almost all the villagers. The inhabitants call their language Puquina (although it is not identical with or even related to historical Puquina as described in the 17th century), and more recently it has also been denominated Uchun maa taqu (‘our mother language’) by the members of the Chipaya linguistic committee.