9 Oldest Languages Of The World

30 July 2022
By Sarah Angela Almaden

Unsplash: Eran Menashri

Languages play a significant role in civilizations. It is used to convey concepts, ideas, stories, and everything in between. And figuring out just how old a language is, can be challenging, sometimes controversial. In fact, linguists say that the age of the language should be determined by when it first surfaced in some type of writing. Hmm, but what about those languages that have no written form?

So do you happen to know how old the language you’re speaking is right now? Neither do I. All I know is that the history of many languages goes wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy back, like way way way way way back. Some languages evolve throughout time, while others die out. But the concept of spoken and structured language is believed to have been around since 10,000 years ago. Isn’t that fascinating?!

Now, if you could travel back in time and speak any of these languages in their earliest form, what language would you choose? And why?

Tamil – 300 BC to Present

Tamil, a Dravidian language, is known as one of the oldest classical languages still in use today. The language is used in Sri Lanka, Singapore, the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry. Its closest language relative is Malayalam. But among the Indian languages, Tamil has the most ancient non-Sanskritic Indian literature.

Tamil is an extremely rich language, with more than 2000 years of recorded Tamil literature. Its earliest period of Tamil literature is dated from c. 300 BC until AD 300 and its earliest records found on rock edicts date from around the 3rd century BC. Two of the earliest manuscripts discovered in India were also written in Tamil. In addition, Tamil inscriptions were found in Sri Lanka and on items for trading in Thailand and Egypt.

Sanskrit – 1500 BC to Present

Sanskrit is one of the 22 official languages of India and it is the second official language of two states in northern India. The creation of Sanskrit was thought to have been done by the god Brahma, who shared it with the Rishis living in the heavens. Then, the Rishis shared the language with the people living on Earth. Its oldest form is known as the Vedic Sanskrit which dates back to the 2nd Millenium BCE.

Sanskrit is one of South Asia’s classical languages, which indicates that the language has a rich literary history and body of written works. It is part of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. It is also considered as the sacred language of Hinduism and is commonly used in Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.

The earliest inscriptions in Sanskrit are from the 1st century BCE known as the Ayodhya Inscription of Dhana and the Ghosundi-Hathibada. One of the largest collections of old manuscripts is written in Sanskrit.

Aramaic – 1100 BC to Present

The Aramaic language was the language spoken by the Arameans of the ancient region of Syria. From 911 to 605 BC, it served as the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and it spread to important historical regions in Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and the Levant. It is also believed that Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic.

The early Aramaic alphabet was built on the Phoenician writing system. However, as the language evolved through time, so did its own particular “square” writing style, which the ancient Israelites adopted for their languages.

The other writing system for Aramaic was called the Syriac alphabet, and it was created by Christian communities. The cursive script is written from right to left in horizontal lines and it was used to write the Syriac language since the 1st century AD.

The Mandaic alphabet is also believed to have derived from the Aramaic writing system. In addition to being written in horizontal lines from right to left, this cursive script hasn't changed much over the centuries. Over the past few years, Majid Fandi al-Mubaraki, a Mandaean resident living in Australia, has been digitizing Mandaean manuscripts using a Mandaic script typeset.

Greek – 1450 BC to Present

Flickr: Kirk Siang

The Greek language is the most commonly spoken lingua franca in the Mediterranean, but the language has been used in the Balkans since roughly the 3rd Millennium BCE. Its earliest written artifact is a clay tablet written in Linear B that was discovered in Messenia and dated between 1450 and 1350 BC.

Greek is spoken by about 13 million people. It is the official language of Greece and Cyprus. The language is also recognized as a minority language spoken in some regional municipalities in countries such as Albania, Armenia, Ukraine, Romania, and Hungary.

The language is divided into periods:

  • Proto Greek – last shared ancestor of all Greek languages
  • Mycenaean Greek – the language of the Mycenaean civilization preserved in Linear B writing
  • Ancient Greek – the Greek language spoken during the Classical and Archaic eras
  • Koine Greek – this dialect spoken in Athens is also known as Hellenistic Greek, Alexandrian dialect, common Attic, or Biblical Greek
  • Medieval Greek – the Byzantine Empire's official language, sometimes known as Byzantine Greek
  • Modern Greek – language used by Modern Greeks, also known as Neo-Hellenic
Coptic Egyptian – 2nd Century CE to 11th or 16th Century

The literal meaning of the native phrase for the Coptic language term – ϯⲙⲉⲧⲣⲉⲙⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ in the Bohairic dialect and ⲧⲙⲛ̄ⲧⲣⲙ̄ⲛ̄ⲕⲏⲙⲉ in the Sahidic dialect – is “language of the people of Egypt.”

The Coptic language is the most recent form of the Egyptian language. Unlike the earlier Egyptian writing system in hieroglyphics, cursive Hieratic, and Demotic scripts, Coptic is known for using a mostly Greek-derived alphabet, with a small number of characters written in Demotic Egyptian. The language was first recorded in the New Kingdom of Egypt and it has a strong association with Egypt’s Christian community.

The earliest Coptic literature comes from the pre-Christian era, aka Old Coptic. The works are attributed to well-known Coptic Church saints including Anthony the Great (Father of All Monks) and Saint Pachomius the Great (Father of Spiritual Communal Monastic Life).

Old Irish or Old Gaelic – 4th Century AD to Present

The earliest version of the Gaelic or Goidelic language, which was spoken between around 600 and roughly 900, is known as Old Irish or Old Gaelic. The language is the ancestor of modern Gaelic languages like Scottish Gaelic, Manx, and Modern Irish.

The majority of Old Irish modern writings are from c. 700 to c. 850. However, the language was evolving into Middle Irish by the year 900. There are Old Irish texts from the 10th century as well, but it's believed that these were copies of literature from earlier centuries.

Another older form of Irish is known as Primitive Irish or Archaic Irish. Primitive Irish, written in the Ogham alphabet, is mostly used in personal names which are carved into stone during the 4th and 6th centuries.

Chinese – 1250 BC to Present

Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family with hundreds of dialects that are not mutually intelligible. The different dialects include Mandarin, Wu, Min, Xiang, Yue, Hakka, Gan, and others that are currently unidentified.

Currently, it's estimated that 1.3 billion people worldwide speak a form of Chinese as their native tongue. Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are the two most prominent forms of the language.

The earliest known Chinese writing dates around 1250 BCE in the late Shang dynasty and the inscriptions are found on oracle bones. In addition, Archaic Chinese (also known as Old Chinese) was written down during the Western Zhou era (about 1046 to 771 BCE) in bronze artifacts and various literary works like the Classic of Poetry, in some sections of the Book of Documents, and in the I Ching.

Throughout the 6th and 10th centuries CE, Middle Chinese was used by the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties. The most important piece of this Chinese form is the Qieyun rime dictionary. Qieyun rime dictionary is the oldest surviving rhyme dictionary and the primary source for character pronunciation in Early Middle Chinese.

Hebrew – 1000 BC to 200 CE, 1800 to Present

Modern Hebrew is the official language of Israel. But the older version of the language is still used in Jewish and Samaritan communities for religious and literary purposes around the world. The language is the only Canaanite language that is continuously used today.

Between 1200 and 586 BCE, Hebrew was a widely used spoken language in Israel and Judah. By the 4th to 6th century, the everyday language became extinct. Even after it became extinct, Hebrew was still used for business transactions, literary purposes, and in the liturgy of Judaism. As a result, between the 4th and 19th centuries, the language developed into a range of Medieval Hebrew dialects. By the late 19th century, the spoken language was then revived.

The Hebrew language history is typically broken down into four time periods:

  • Classical Hebrew (Biblical) – the language spoken by the ancient Israelites from the 10th century BCE to the 4th century CE
  • Mishnaic (The Language of Mishna) – the name of the Hebrew dialects recorded in the Talmud, which was written around 200 CE
  • Medieval Hebrew – the written literary and liturgical language used by rabbis, poets, and scholars from the 4th to the 19th century
  • Modern Hebrew – the Standard Hebrew that was created by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, which was rooted in Sephardi pronunciation and Mishnaic spelling
Basque – No One Knows Its Origin

The Basque language is the only language isolate in Europe, which means that the language is not related to other larger language families. The language, also known as Euskara, is spoken by 751,500 people in the Basque Country – a region located in the northernmost part of Spain and the southwestern part of France.

There are six distinguished Basque dialects:

  • Biscayan – dialect spoken in the Biscay area
  • Gipuzkoan – dialect spoken in the central and eastern parts of Gipuzkoa
  • Upper Navarrese – dialect spoken in the northern part of the Navarre area
  • Lower Navarrese – dialect spoken in the Lower Navarre and Labourd area of the French Basque Country
  • Lapurdian – a classic dialect of the Basque Country that is thought to sound more polished
  • Souletin – dialect spoken in Soule, France

Nearly all theories regarding the Basque language's origins are up to debate, but the three most popular ones are as follows:

  • Native Origin – the language would have developed over millennia between the current south of France and the north of the Iberian Peninsula without any chance of a formal connection to other modern languages spoken elsewhere
  • Basque-Iberism – the language has a formal relationship between the Basque and Iberian languages and between their speakers
  • Caucasian origin – the Basque language and the Caucasus languages are closely related because they share some linguistic elements that are missing from Indo-European languages
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