What Are the Oldest Languages in the World Still Widely Spoken Today?

Buckle up! It's time to go back in time and find out what is the oldest living language on Earth.

What Are the Oldest Languages in the World Still Widely Spoken Today?

There are 7,097 living languages in the world today. Out of these, a third are now endangered. And out of this third, many have less than 1,000 speakers remaining. But what is the oldest of them? What are the oldest languages in the world? How did the first words our ancestors spoke sound like?

Languages have always been fascinating because of the role they played as one of the pillars of civilization on Earth. Imagine a world where beings don’t communicate. How does that world look like? It’s unimaginable. Languages have shaped humanity for ages and continue to do so even today. They are fluid and in a continuous evolution. But their timeless metamorphosis makes it hard for historians and linguists to determine what are the oldest languages in the world.

We only know what history tells us. And history says spoken language appeared 10,000 years ago. But we can never know for sure because no one was there to confirm. So there is only one way to judge the age of a language: by the earliest proof of its written form. However, this still remains guesswork, as it’s always possible that archaeologists might discover something new tomorrow. Something that could change history as we know it. Furthermore, these languages were surely in use long before they were written in stone or on papyruses. But for how long? It remains a mystery.

What is the oldest dead language on Earth?

Or better said – the oldest extinct language as an extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers. A dead language, on the other hand, is “one that is no longer the native language of any community”, even if it is still in use, like Latin.

The archaeological proof we have today allows us to state that the oldest dead language in the world is the Sumerian language. Dating back to at least 3500 BC, the oldest proof of written Sumerian was found in today’s Iraq, on an artifact known as the Kish Tablet. Thus, given this evidence, Sumerian can also be considered the first language in the world.

Sumerian was gradually replaced by Akkadian as a spoken language around 2000 BC, but it continued to be used as a literary, ceremonial, scientific and sacred language until the 1st century AD. Unknown to the modern world until the 19th century when Assyriologists began deciphering its cuneiform inscriptions, written Sumerian can be divided into several time periods: Archaic Sumerian (31st–26th century BC), Old or Classical Sumerian (26th–23rd century BC), Neo-Sumerian (23rd–21st century BC), Late Sumerian (20th–18th century BC) and Post-Sumerian (after 1700 BC).

Other very old languages that are now extinct are:

  • Hurrian  – oldest proof of written Hurrian dates back to the 21st century BC;
  • Palaic – attested in cuneiform tablets in Bronze Age Hattusa – circa the 16th century BC;
  • Egyptian – its earliest known complete written sentence has been dated to about 2690 BC;
  • Akkadian – first attested texts from around the mid-3rd-millennium BC;
  • Elamite – the earliest Elamite writings use a pictographic script and date from the middle of the 3rd millennium BC;
  • Hittite – the oldest known text in the Hittite language was written by Anitta, a king that reigned in the 17th century BC;
  • Mycenaean Greek – the most ancient attested form of the Greek language with the earliest writings dating back to 1450 BC.

10 oldest living languages in the world

The same as everything else in the world, languages have a life cycle. They are born, then grow, sometimes mutate and eventually die. Still, there are languages on Earth that have been on people’s lips for thousands of years and continue to exist to this day.

Here are some of the oldest languages in the world still spoken today.

Sanskrit (cc. 3500 years old)

First attested: 2nd millennium BC

Spoken in: India

Current number of speakers: 5 million

Sanskrit was the lingua franca of ancient and medieval India and the first written record of it can be found in Rigveda, a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns.

Although many believe Sanskrit to be an extinct language, 24,800 people have registered Sanskrit as their mother tongue at the 2011 census. Additionally, it continues to be used as a ceremonial and ritual language in Hinduism and some Buddhist practices.

Greek (cc. 3400 years old)

First attested: 1450 BC.

Spoken in: Greece, southern Italy

Current number of speakers: 13 million

Greek was also mentioned in the “extinct languages” category because Mycenaean Greek is the precursor of Modern Greek. Thus, it’s debatable whether the Greek language we speak today is indeed 3400 years old or not. However, since its roots lie in Mycenaean Greek, we can all agree that Greek is indeed one of the oldest living languages in the world.

The Greek language holds an important place in history thanks to its rich literature that includes epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Additionally, Greek is also the language in which many of the fundamental works in astronomy, mathematics, logic and philosophy (the Platonic dialogues and the works of Aristotle) are composed.

oldest language in the world
“Hercules furens” by Seneca

Coptic Egyptian (cc. 2200 years old)

First attested: 2nd century BC

Spoken in: Egypt

Current number of speakers: unknown

Sometime in the 2nd century BC, Egyptian began to be written in the Coptic alphabet (an adaptation of the Greek alphabet), so the Coptic language can be considered the latest stage of the Egyptian language.

Unfortunately, the language will probably soon become extinct since there only a few people left in the world who continue to use Coptic as their day-to-day vernacular.

Hebrew (cc. 3000 years old)

First attested: 10th century BCE

Spoken in: Israel

Current number of speakers: 9.3 million

The earliest known precursor to Hebrew is the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription in Ancient Hebrew discovered in 2007, near the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, 30 km from Jerusalem.

The fascinating thing about Hebrew is that it had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between 200 and 400 AD. Then, it continued to be used throughout the medieval period as the language of Jewish liturgy, rabbinic literature and poetry. Nevertheless, with the rise of Zionism in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language, becoming the main language of the Jewish community and subsequently of the State of Israel.

Chinese (cc. 3200 years old)

First attested: 1250 BC

Spoken in: mainly China, but also other countries around the world

Current number of speakers: 1.3 billion

Old Chinese is the oldest attested stage of Chinese and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese. The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on oracle bones from around 1250 BC, during the late Shang dynasty.

oldest language
“Hebrew” by Mick Haupt©

Aramaic (cc. 3100 years old)

First attested: 11th century BC

Spoken in: Middle East and Western Asia

Current number of speakers: cc. 2 million

During its approximately 3,100 years of history, Aramaic has served as a language of divine worship and religious study, administration of empires and as the mother tongue of a number of Semitic people from the Near East.

Historically, Aramaic was the language of the Arameans, the Semitic-speaking people from the region between the northern Levant and the northern Tigris valley.

Arabic (cc. 2800 years old)

First attested: 1st century BC

Spoken in: there are 25 countries that have Arabic as an official or co-official language

Current number of speakers: 335 million

Old Arabic is the ancestor of the Arabic language and it is believed that its earliest inscription is a prayer to the three gods of the Transjordanian Canaanite kingdoms dated to the early 1st millennium BC.

Farsi (cc. 2500 years old)

First attested: 522 – 486 BC

Spoken in: Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Russia, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan

Current number of speakers: 65 million

The ancestor of Farsi or Persian is Old Persian, a language that is first attested in the inscriptions of Darius I who ruled between 522 and 486 BC.

Examples of Old Persian have been found in what is now Iran, Romania, Armenia, Bahrain, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. However, the most important attestation by far is the Behistun Inscription which is a multilingual inscription that was crucial to the decipherment of cuneiform script because it includes three versions of the same text, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian).

oldest living language
“The Holy Book” by T Foz©

Tamil – oldest language in the world?

First attested: widely debated; proposals range between 5320 BC and the 8th century CE

Spoken in: India

Current number of speakers: 83 million

The earliest Tamil writing is attested in inscriptions and potsherds from the 5th century BC. However, with the discovery of Tolkāppiyam, the most ancient Tamil grammar text and the oldest surviving work of Tamil literature, scholars began to debate the true age of Tamil. The author of Tolkāppiyam often mentions “they say so” (or something similar) indicating a rich grammar and literature tradition even before him. Naturally, linguists began to wonder whether we should be dating the Tamil language at least a couple of thousand years before Tolkāppiyam.

Unfortunately, at the moment there is no archaeological evidence to support this claim, so experts stick to the original findings.

Irish Gaelic (1500 years old)

First attested: 4th century AD

Spoken in: Ireland

Current number of speakers: 1.2 million users

The earliest Irish Gaelic writings date to 4th century AD, in the form of the linear Ogham scripts, in a stage of the language known as Primitive Irish. Then, Primitive Irish transitioned into Old Irish through the 5th century. During this time, the Irish language absorbed some Latin words and by the 10th century, it evolved once again into Middle Irish, which was spoken throughout Ireland and in Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Starting the 12th century, Middle Irish began to develop into Modern Irish in Ireland, Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and into the Manx language in the Isle of Man. However, from the 18th century on, the language began to lose ground. But we should ask Claire and Jamie Fraser to tell us more about this story, shouldn’t we?

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28 comments on “What Are the Oldest Languages in the World Still Widely Spoken Today?

  1. Tamil is said to be 5000 years old. Only 5% of archaeological survey in India and only 17% to 20% archaeological excavation work done in keezhadi. Even in that the result says that each and every person in ancient Tamil Nadu, keezhadi had literated. In sankrit Veda some of the Tamil words and tamil saint Agathiar is mentioned. In Sanskrit skanda purana the writer vyasar says that tamil is born in podhigaimalai and we’re developed by saint Agathiar. When Agathiar is lived back 5000 years ago. Yes the written script found in 20% of excavation shows that Tamizh is 2500 years but it is surely said that is born before 4000 to 5000 years ago.

    1. Tamil is the oldest language in the world and widely spoken in the state called Tamilnadu in India and some non tamils in india don’t accept this truth out of their jealous. However i am always ashamed to be an Indian because Indian’s always deny the truths….

    2. I am Tamil. It’s sad to see Tamil people keep saying Tamil is the oldest all the time, without knowing what facts we have to support this claim. They are totally unaware of the evidences. They are being triggered by patriotic words.

      They aren’t saying Tamil isn’t old. They say there are no archaeological proof for that. We don’t have any literary works found, which is older than 2300 years. Oldest written pieces we have got is tholkapiyam, written in 3rd century bc. All these “TAMIL is 5000 years old” speculations are purely based on the stories mentioned in the literary works. Just like how plato described Atlantis in his books and now we are searching for it. They are explaining based on the evidences. If you say Tamil is the oldest of all, and if you say Kumari kandam existed, only you have to prove it. There’s no solid evidence for that. At least we haven’t discovered such evidences if they exist. “Don’t just say Tamil is the oldest without proof”. No offence. We don’t have evidence to support the age mentioned in books of Tamil literature. That’s the truth.

  2. My own written research since 2013 and in illustration art form proves without doubt that Gaelic is the oldest language in the world and the original spoken on The Isles of Britain and Ireland. It arrived from West Africa by boat and its words are original from the Jungle. Lets not confuse this with an evolved State Irish ( commenced 1923). My evidence shows that Gaelic ( language of the boat people) was spoken albeit in primitive form before the arrival of the Celts and became subsumed into the language of the Celts but continued to remain to be known as Gaelic and its words still predominate in what is spoken as Irish today.

    1. @John Allen Tamil is oldest. Proof? If you have open mind you will see. Its not just old but mother of all languages.
      1. koreans basically speak tamil words
      2. remote cameroon village kids speaks tamil ( video is done by BBC nova)
      3. Tamil words in japanese and mandarin.

      Its not old when only few 100 speak. Click language probably older in that sense. Copying nature sound is hunter gatherers way.

      Half the english words are tamil root words. Here is an example. Mediterrain. Peninsula

      Medu (mound-> also came from medu – above ground) +tharai (ground)
      Peninsula – This one took some brilliant brain to crack this. Pen in sula. Pregnant woman. One side body rest in water.
      Strangest name is an animal called MARSUPIAL. This animal is not in india. How the hell it has tamil word? Mar – chest Supial – sucking,.
      There are many many many english words are tamil words. Start with ONE. Onru.<- tamil word

  3. Tamil is the oldest language in the world because for an language grammar book is an regulation work and it will regulate the language we speak so tamil grammar “thol kaapiyam” is more than 5000 years old. So before that the language must be evolved.

  4. Dear Friends,

    Mother of language “Tamil”

    One and only Tamil is the oldest language in the world..!!

    Cheer’s 😊

    1. Except for Australian indigenous languages that have been spoken for up to 60000 years?

  5. Old bulgarian a.k.a Old church slavonic is the oldest slavic language and the ancestor of all slavic languages spoken today.

  6. Kannada is been spoken 400 Ce,We have old Kannada,Middle age Kannada,Today it is modern Kannada spoken widely.The oldest language in the world Age 2500 years derived from Tamil but sanskrtized,it is second language of the Dravidians.

    1. Sorry you have wrong notion on Sanskrit which is not belong to Dravidian languages….Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu and kodagu are the languages of Dravidian family….

  7. The debate becomes which one to be oldest among the oldest languages now.

    Tamil is undeniably proven with its evidence of first notable one. Its a ‘grammar’ text, with oldest extant long work of its literature alone.

    Relate it!. As this one as first book of evidence, which is a grammer test ‘Thoilkappium’!. Then, language could have been original spoken with minimum of 2000 years before the text.

    Conclusion: Tamil is the oldest of all!

  8. Deepak.. stop talking such as fake Tamil ego and all.. if your mother is good, then keep her good with yourself.. dont talk about our mother tamil to us like this.. then controversy should be faced by you for sure.. ✌

  9. Narrow thought and misconception mind can be satisfied. Is any language is begging from a grammar book? What a foolish is this? Believing, a man was teaching Tamil is the origination point of a language. How he is blaming the mother and mother tounge. Arguments shall not always ask the proof. After a few decades, everyone will be out of earth. Will it be mean that Mr.Mannivannan’s living proof or Jawahar’s was not available or lost, ‘hence he did not be available’ may be a final statement?
    Not only Tamil, other long standing language had widely spread around the world even before the modern transportation was not developed.
    Language grammar book can not decide the origination of a language.
    You may be a Tamizhian or having any other mother tounge, but, you can’t decide the beginning of the root.
    There are more things to unearth, for proving the age of “Tamil language “. For which, more money is required.
    Don’t try to stay always on the “off side “, try to understand the improvement in unearthing the proof for the satisfaction of the people like you.

  10. There are sunkan construction off the east coast of Tamilnadu, which were unearthede by S.E.S. of England and N.I.O. of Indian. Dr.Glen Milne after thorough reasearch says it went down before 11,000 years, after the end of last ice age, due to melt water. These construction are there within five kilometers from the coast, at the depth of 120 to 150 feet. Actually Tamil civilisation is an ice age civilisation. Archeological evidence that you were asking is available under water for the full length Tamilnadu east coast and at sounth of capecomorin.

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