The 10 Oldest Languages In The World

Determining the exact count of languages today is challenging, but anthropologists estimate it to be around 7000. Out of these, only approximately 200 languages are spoken by over one million people, leaving many languages with fewer than 100,000 speakers.

Furthermore, a considerable portion of the languages spoken today have origins dating back several centuries. Many of today’s languages have evolved from earlier linguistic forms, some of which are now extinct. Even contemporary English differs from its medieval counterpart. Contrary to popular belief, English is not among the oldest languages; in fact, modern English is relatively young, with a history spanning only five centuries.

Now, let’s delve deeper into history to uncover the earliest languages spoken by humanity.

10. Persian (2500 Years Old)

Persian, also known as Farsi, originated around 525 BC in ancient Iran. The development of Persian occurred over three distinct stages: Old, Middle, and Modern Persia.

Old Persian (525 BC to 300 BC) marked the inception of the language, with Behistun inscriptions serving as early written records. These inscriptions, found in Kermanshah City, Iran, are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Believed to be authored by Persian King Darius around 500 BC, the inscriptions are trilingual, written in Elamite, Old Persian, and Babylonian.

Middle Persian, exemplified by Pahlavi Illustrations (300 BC to 800 AD), was primarily used during the Sasanian Empire and retained its prestige even after the empire’s collapse.

Modern Persian emerged around 800 AD and is now the official language of Iran, Tajikistan (known as Tajik), and Afghanistan (known as Dari). While Modern Persian is spoken across these regions, slight variations exist. Afghans and Iranians use the Persian alphabet for writing, while Tajikistan employs the Tajik alphabet, derived from Cyrillic script.

Today, more than 100 million people worldwide speak Modern Persian.

9. Latin (2700 Years Old)

Latin ancient language and classical education. Inscription from Emperor Augustus famous Res Gestae (1st century AD), with the word Romanum in the center

In ancient Rome, Latin was established as the official language for both the empire and religion, which explains why the Roman Church regards it as its official language.

Latin is believed to have originated around 700 BC and is classified as an Indo-European language by scholars. Other languages within this linguistic group include Italian, French, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even English.

Interestingly, the original speakers of Latin were known as Romans, a term derived from Romulus, the language’s founder.

The influence of the Roman Empire facilitated the dissemination of Latin to numerous regions across the globe that were part of the empire’s territory.

8. Aramaic (2900 Years Old)

The Aramaeans introduced the Aramaic language around 900 BC. Originating from the Middle East, the Aramaeans were a Semitic group. By 700 BC, Aramaic had gained popularity and spread across various cultures, with the Assyrians even adopting it as their second language.

The Assyrians and Babylonian merchants played a significant role in disseminating the language through trade with other Middle Eastern communities. By 600 BC, Aramaic had supplanted Akkadian as the official language of the Middle East. Subsequently, the Achaemenian Persians (559 BC to 330 BC) embraced Aramaic.

However, Greek eventually replaced Aramaic as the official language of the Persian Empire.

7. Hebrew (3000 Years Old)

Hebrew is a Semitic language primarily spoken in the Northwest region. Anthropologists classify it as one of the Afroasiatic languages. Historically, Hebrew has been one of the languages spoken by the Israelites. The Samaritans and Jews, who are the longest-surviving descendants of the Israelites, continue to speak Hebrew.

As the official language of Israel, Hebrew holds significant importance. However, Palestinians also adopted Hebrew as their official language following World War I.

Hebrew holds a sacred status among Jews as it was the language used to write the Old Testament. Its origins trace back to around 1000 BC, and although it temporarily disappeared, Hebrew was later revived by the Israelites.

In its written form, Hebrew is read and written from right to left, in contrast to English and other languages that follow the opposite direction.

6. Han Ethnic Chinese (3250 Years Ago)

Today, the term “Chinese language” is misleading, as there is no single unified language known as “Chinese” despite its common usage to describe the language spoken by the Chinese population.

The primary languages spoken in China today are Mandarin and Cantonese, often referred to as “Chinese” by outsiders. However, these languages are relatively recent developments. Cantonese emerged around 220 AD, while Mandarin emerged in the 1300s AD.

In ancient times, the ancestors of the Chinese people spoke a different language, which scholars refer to as Han ethnic Chinese. Han ethnic Chinese emerged around 1250 BC.

It’s worth noting that the spoken version of Han ethnic Chinese likely predates the given date, which is based on evidence of the earliest written forms of the language.

Scholars classify Han ethnic Chinese as a Sinitic language, a collective term that encompasses the various languages spoken by minority groups in China.

5. Greek (3450 Years Ago)

Greek stands out as one of the few ancient languages that have endured to the present day. With a history spanning approximately three and a half millennia, Greek remains a primary language in contemporary Greece.

Emerging in the Balkans, Greek is believed to have been spoken before 1450 BC. The earliest evidence of the language from ancient times was discovered on a clay tablet unearthed in Messenia, dating between 1450 BC and 1350 BC, providing insight into the language’s ancient origins.

Scholars have demonstrated that Greek, like many languages, has undergone evolution over time. Its earliest form, Proto-Greek, was never recorded in writing but served as the precursor to all known versions of Greek. Subsequent versions include Mycenaean, Ancient, Koine, and Medieval Greek.

Modern Greek, also known as Neo-Hellenic Greek, emerged during the Byzantine era, around the 11th century. Presently, two versions of Greek are spoken: Domotiki, the colloquial version, and Katharevousa, a hybrid form influenced by both ancient Greek and Dimotiki.

4. Sanskrit (3500 Years Ago)

Sanskrit traces its roots back to around 1500 BC and continues to hold significance in various religious ceremonies and texts within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family, Sanskrit, like its predecessors, existed in multiple forms. Vedic Sanskrit represents the earliest version of the language, with some considering Sanskrit as the oldest language and dubbing it the “mother of all tongues.”

Scholars identify two main versions of Sanskrit: Vedic Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit, with the latter evolving from the former. While both versions share similarities, they differ in aspects such as grammar, phonology, and vocabulary.

Despite its ancient origins, a form of Sanskrit is still spoken in various regions of India today. The Indian government even recognizes it as one of the country’s 22 official languages.

3. Tamil (5000 Years Ago)

Tamil stands among the oldest languages, with its origins dating back to 3000 BC. Scholars classify Tamil as a Dravidian language, and evidence suggests its existence even before 3000 BC, as indicated by the printing of the first Tamil grammar book by the Tamils. It is believed that the spoken form of Tamil predates its written form.

Remarkably, Tamil continues to be spoken in certain regions across the Indian subcontinent, making it one of the few ancient languages that remain in use today. As such, it holds the distinction of being the oldest language still in active use.

Tamil holds official recognition in Sri Lanka and Singapore, and it serves as the precursor to many languages spoken in India today, including those in Puducherry, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Recognizing its profound literary tradition, extensive ancient texts, and antiquity, the UN designated Tamil as a classical language in 2004.

The term “Tamil” carries multiple meanings; while it denotes the language itself, it also signifies “natural,” “sweet,” and “beautiful.” Intriguingly, Tamil is personified as a deity named Tamil Thai, with “Thai” meaning “mother,” emphasizing the language’s nurturing and foundational role.

Moreover, Tamil holds the status of a minority language in Mauritius, Malaysia, and South Africa, underscoring its global significance and cultural richness.

2. Egyptian (5000 Years Ago)

It comes as no surprise that one of the oldest languages has its roots in Africa, considering the continent’s distinction as the cradle of humankind.

Ancient Egyptian, dating back to around 3000 BC, shares a similar fate with Sumerian, becoming extinct in 641 AD following the Arab conquest of Egypt. Egyptians employed Hieroglyphic scripts, utilizing symbols representing humans, animals, and various objects in their written language.

The earliest known Hieroglyphic scripts, unearthed from archaeological sites, date back to 2600 BC and primarily feature names and short narratives. Notably, autobiographical inscriptions adorning the walls of private tombs serve as prime examples of Hieroglyphs.

Over its 4000-year existence, the written Egyptian language underwent notable transformations. Initially, during the Old Egyptian stage (2600 BC to 2100 BC), it encompassed names and concise sentences, likely spoken before being standardized in written form.

The subsequent Middle Egyptian phase (2100 BC to 1500 BC) emerged due to changes in spoken language, employing both Hieratic and Hieroglyphic scripts. Hieratic was utilized for legal documents, letters, and literary texts, while Hieroglyphs adorned tombs, temple inscriptions, and royal decrees.

Late Egyptian (1500 BC to 700 BC) marked the third stage, witnessed the usage of late Egyptian Hieroglyphs, papyri, Hieratic, and Ostraca, reflecting further shifts in spoken language.

During the fourth stage, Demotic (700 BC to 400 AD), Hieratic and Hieroglyphs were supplanted by Demotic texts for communication purposes, signifying evolving linguistic trends.

The final stage, Coptic, emerged around 400 AD, gradually waning with the ascendancy of Arabic during the transition from the Byzantine to the Islamic era.

1. Sumerian (5,000 Years Ago)

Around 3200 BC, the Sumerian language emerged, earning the distinction of being the oldest written language. Sumerians employed cuneiform script, characterized by wedge-shaped symbols formed by impressions made on soft clay tablets using a sharpened reed stylus.

Archeologists unearthed tablets dating back to the fourth millennium BC, featuring inscriptions ranging from educational materials to administrative records. This extinct language was spoken by ancient Sumerians residing in southern Mesopotamia.

The spoken form of Sumerian ceased around 2000 BC when Sumerians adopted Semitic Akkadian languages. However, it persisted as a written language among Assyro-Babylonians for nearly a millennium after its spoken demise.

Sumerian remained confined to the southern Mesopotamian region and was not spoken beyond its boundaries.
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