What are the world's oldest languages?

December 26, 2019
What are the world's oldest languages?

Those of us who work in the professional languages sector are well used to considering the intricacies of grammar and finding the perfect synonym, yet how often do we stop to consider the roots of the languages we’re translating? Not the roots of individual words, but of the languages themselves. 

How old are the languages that you translate? And what is the oldest language of the world? We’ve been researching this second question recently at Tomedes, during the course of the provision of our language translation services. As such, we thought we would share our findings with you! 

What Is the World’s Oldest Language?

There’s no simple answer to what the world’s oldest language is, but it’s certainly a question that gets both historians and linguists fired up. 

Some argue that all of the languages we now speak originally go back to one human language, the origins of which are lost to prehistory. However, there are actually several different ways that we can consider the idea of the ‘oldest’ language. Let’s take a look at some of them. 

August 2020 Update

Our discussion of the world’s oldest language has certainly generated plenty of debate! As we mentioned above in the original article, it’s a topic that give rise to strong opinions among both historians and linguists. 

One reason for this is the complexity involved in defining what we mean when we talk about the ‘oldest’ language. Below, we look at the world’s oldest written language and several ancient languages that are still in use today. 

In this update to the original article, we’ve also taken a close look at Tamil, which some believe should bear the title of world’s oldest language, as well as the world’s oldest known religious texts. Note we’re saying oldest ‘known’ and ‘surviving’ language throughout this article – so much has been lost to the sands of time. 

One respected authority on the origins of language is Daniel Ross, a Lecturer of Linguistics at the University of California, Riverside and Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Ross explains that, 

“The earliest language reasonably confidently identified through scientific methods is probably Proto-Afro-Asiatic. We don’t have any direct evidence for it, but by comparing different modern languages we can be reasonably confident that some shared ancestor to those languages existed, maybe around 15,000 years ago.”

This is probably the most certain we can be in terms of identifying the world’s oldest language, but there are plenty of other contenders. Let’s take a look at some of them! 

What Is the Oldest Written Language? 

Many linguists judge the age of a language by the first time it appeared in writing. In that case, the world’s oldest language is from mainland China. In 1962, a piece of Yangshao culture pottery was discovered. The pottery, which has been dated to between 5000 and 4000 BCE, shows proto-characters for the numbers five, seven and eight. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the first written language. 

Another ancient language for which we have written evidence is the cuneiform script used by Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia. 

Cuneiform was first used around 3400 BCE, meaning that it pre-dates even Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sumerians wrote on clay tablets with a blunt reed. The wedge-shaped results are what gave rise to the script’s name – ‘cuneiform’ means ‘wedge-shaped.’

The script itself was used in many instances for funerary inscriptions; it seems that the Sumerians were preoccupied with what the afterlife might hold in store. 

What Are the World’s Oldest Religious Texts?

When it comes to the oldest surviving written languages used for religious texts, the winner is Ancient Egyptian. It was used for the Pyramid Texts around 2400–2300 BC. 

Carved into the subterranean walls and sarcophagi of pyramids at Saqqara, the Pyramid Texts are the world’s oldest body of religious texts. They are followed by the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which is generally considered to be the world’s second oldest known religious text and earliest surviving great literary work. 

Is Tamil the World’s Oldest Language?

Many of our readers made the case for Tamil as the world’s oldest language and it’s certainly a strong contender. There’s plenty of contradictory information out there about just how old Tamil is, some of it published by respected sources, some by less respected ones! Claims vary hugely, with some arguing that Tamil is 5,000 years old and others stating it dates back more than 10,000 years. 

What is clear, however, is that Tamil is possibly the world’s oldest language that is still spoken today. Other much-debated contenders for this crown include Sindhi, Sanskrit and Greek. Written evidence of Greek stretches as far back as around 1450 BCE, in the form of a Linear B clay tablet. 

Linear B is the name of the syllabic script used in Mycenaean Greece, and Mycenaean Greek is the world’s earliest attested from of the Greek language. Examples of it have been found at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae. 

The script includes roughly 87 syllabic signs and more than 100 ideographic signs, which symbolize commodities or objects (with no phonetic value). 

Other Ancient Languages That Are Still Spoken Today

Chinese is another of the oldest known languages. Inscriptions of Chinese characters in turtle shells have been found and dated as far back as the Shang dynasty of 1766-1123 BCE. For those of us currently translating Chinese to English, this is a fascinating historic connection. 

Another of the world’s oldest languages is Basque. Interestingly, historians have been unable to shed any light on the precise (or even vague) origins of Basque, but it is generally believed to date back to prehistoric Europe. Not only that, but Basque is an isolate language, meaning that it bears no relation to any other known language. 

Hebrew also dates back thousands of years. A Canaanite language that forms part of the Northwest Semitic language family, Hebrew was spoken as early as around 1200 BCE. 

As well as being one of the world’s oldest languages, Hebrew also manages to be one of the world’s youngest languages! That’s because it became extinct as a colloquial language by Late Antiquity (300-700/800 CE). However, it continued as a literary language and as Judaism’s liturgical language. Then, in the late 19th century, the rise of Zionism sparked a resurgence of spoken Hebrew, making it at once a new language and an old one. 

Latin – a key influencer of many of our modern European languages – also has ancient origins. Its use is tied in with the Roman Empire, which arose around 75 BCE. As the Romans spread, so did their language, eventually becoming the origin of our Romance languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan and Romanian, as well as many words in English. Something to bear in mind next time you’re working on a Spanish to English translation and need a moment’s downtime! 

The Mystery of Aboriginal Australian Languages 

As one of our readers kindly pointed out, no discussion of ancient languages is complete without paying some attention to the indigenous languages of Australia. An unprecedented DNA study conducted by the University of Cambridge, the Universities of Copenhagen and Bern and others has shown that Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest civilization. 

What has stumped historians, however, is that the language spoken by 90% of Aborigines is just 4,000 years old, while their civilization dates back tens of thousands of years beyond this. One of the DNA study’s lead authors, evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, sums up the mystery:

“It’s a really weird scenario. A few immigrants appear in different villages and communities around Australia. They change the way people speak and think; then they disappear, like ghosts. And people just carry on living in isolation the same way they always have. This may have happened for religious or cultural reasons that we can only speculate about. But in genetic terms, we have never seen anything like it before.”

If anything, the example of language loss highlighted by the study serves to emphasise that however much we manage to work out about prehistoric events, there will always be a vast amount that we simply do not – and cannot – know. 

The Importance of Understanding Our Languages

We live in interesting linguistic times. Every year that Tomedes provides translation services to business clients, we see a shift in demand – not just for the type of services that we offer but also for the language pairings. 

Ethnologue reports that just 23 languages are sufficient to cover half of the world’s population. Yet there are 7,097 languages in existence. Distressingly, around a third of those languages are facing a rocky future, with fewer than 1,000 speakers and a very real danger of slipping into extinction. You can read more on the world’s most endangered languages by clicking the link below. 

With so many languages at risk of extinction, the Tomedes team believes that it’s important to understand the linguistic big picture and to do all we can to maintain its wondrous diversity. 

Read more: The World’s Most Endangered Languages

Final Thoughts

Which language pairing do you work with to earn a living? What are the origins of each of the languages that you speak? It’s important to keep curiosity about all aspects of language alive and well, so do give the matter some thought. Please feel free to share any interesting language facts that you discover during your research in the comments below. You can also add them directly to our fascinating language facts page. 

We update our articles regularly, so do add your thoughts below if there are other languages that deserve to be included as contenders for the world’s oldest language and we’ll consider them as part of our next update.  

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.

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