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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? What 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. What 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.
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 are 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 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.
Aramaic (cc. 3100 years old)
First attested: 11th century BC
Spoken in: the 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).
Tamil – the 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 the 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 in the 12th century, Middle Irish began to develop into Modern Irish in Ireland, Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and 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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