From Sumerian to Tamil: Top 12 oldest languages in the world

Welcome to a journey through time and language, where ancient civilizations come to life through their written words. Join us as we delve into the fascinating origins of the oldest languages, tracing their evolution from intricate hieroglyphs etched on the walls of Egyptian tombs to the sacred Sanskrit scriptures of ancient India. These ancient languages hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of our past, providing us with glimpses into the minds and cultures of our ancestors. With each stroke of a brush or chisel, a story unfolds, revealing the triumphs, struggles, and beliefs of those who came before us. From the majestic pyramids of Egypt to the serene temples of India, the journey unravels the rich tapestry of human history, connecting us to our roots in ways we never thought possible. So, prepare to be captivated by the power of language and the profound impact it has had on shaping our world. It’s time to embark on an extraordinary adventure through time and discover the ancient origins of the world’s oldest languages.

Top 12 oldest languages in the world

We’ve done our research and compiled what we believe to be 12 of the oldest languages in the world (some of them are still in use today).

Sumerian – 3100 bce (circa. 5,100 Years Ago)

oldest language in the world

Around 3200 BC, the Sumerian language emerged, earning the remarkable distinction of being the oldest written language in existence. Utilizing a system called cuneiforms, the Sumerians employed wedge-shaped symbols meticulously imprinted onto soft clay tablets with the aid of a sharpened reed stylus.

Notably, archaeologists have uncovered tablets from the fourth millennium bearing inscriptions of educational materials and administrative records. This provides insight into the ancient Sumerians who resided in southern Mesopotamia and conversed using this now-extinct language.

As time progressed, the spoken Sumerian language gradually waned around 2000 BC when the Sumerians began adopting the Semitic Akkadian language. Nevertheless, the Assyro-Babylonians continued to employ Sumerian as a written form of communication for nearly a millennium following its disuse as a spoken language.

It is important to note that the Sumerian language remained confined within the boundaries of southern Mesopotamia and was not spoken beyond those regions.

Egyptian – 2690 BC (circa. 4700 years old)

oldest language in the world

A proto-language originating from the African continent holds the distinction of being the very first known language. Nigeria, in particular, witnessed the creation of the first documented proto-writing system.

Unsurprisingly, the oldest language on the aforementioned list has its roots in Africa as well. Egyptian, an ancient language, emerged from this region. Around 2690 BCE, the earliest recorded complete sentence in Ancient Egyptian appeared, making it a language with a history of over 4700 years.

While the Egyptian language ceased to be spoken by the general populace in the nineteenth century (which, unfortunately, explains the scarcity of hieroglyphic keyboards available for purchase, despite their undeniable allure), it still retains technical relevance today. The descendant of Ancient Egyptian, known as Coptic, continues to be used primarily as the liturgical language within the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the Coptic Catholic Church.

Considering the longevity of over 4500 years, this linguistic continuity is undeniably remarkable.

Sanskrit – 1500 BC (circa. 3500 years old)

oldest language in the world

Having originated around 1500 BCE, Sanskrit boasts a rich historical tapestry, positioning it as one of the world’s oldest languages still in active usage. Its extensive presence within religious texts and ceremonial practices endures in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.

Interestingly, Sanskrit extends its influence beyond spiritual realms. It finds frequent application in bureaucratic institutions across India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and various parts of South and Southeast Asia. From missile names to school mottos, Sanskrit words and phrases pervade these administrative domains.

Curiously, during India’s census, several thousand individuals consistently report Sanskrit as their primary language, although it is widely believed that no one today actually speaks it as their first language. Researchers suggest that such reporting may stem from a desire to express an aspirational mother tongue.

Despite the absence of native speakers conversing in Sanskrit, there exists a significant population capable of speaking and reading it as a second language within India and beyond. The language garners profound interest, as evidenced by the presence of dedicated Sanskrit universities.

Sanskrit transcends its traditional role in prayer and meditation, finding a place in modern literature, music, and even interlinguistic communication through loan words incorporated into various languages worldwide. Its versatility and enduring influence remain undeniable.

Greek – 1450 BC (circa. 3500 years old)

oldest language in the world

Looking slightly ahead in time, Greek emerges as one of the most ancient languages still in use as a primary, everyday means of communication. While Modern Greek has undergone significant transformations compared to the ancient Greek spoken in earlier eras, the language spoken in present-day Greece can be traced back as a direct descendant of the language used by Homer and his predecessors, even predating him by a substantial margin.

The renowned works of Homer, such as The Odyssey, are estimated to have been composed between the seventh and eighth centuries BC, providing valuable insights into the linguistic heritage of the Greek language.

The earliest confirmed version of Greek, known as Mycenaean Greek, made its appearance around 1450 BCE, a staggering 700 years prior to the emergence of The Odyssey. Today, the contemporary Greek language boasts an impressive count of approximately 13.5 million native speakers. This enduring linguistic legacy spanning nearly 3,500 years is undoubtedly remarkable.

Chinese – 1250 BC (circa. 3300 years old)

oldest language in the world

Chinese presents itself as a formidable contender for the title of both the oldest written language and the oldest spoken language that remains in use today. Its immense utility is complemented by a rich and extensive historical background.

The earliest documented form of Old Chinese can be traced back to inscriptions found on oracle bones, dating approximately to 1250 BCE. These inscriptions serve as tangible evidence of the ancient roots of the Chinese language.

Given the vast array of language varieties and dialects present in contemporary China, the term “Chinese” encompasses a broad spectrum. However, many widely spoken varieties, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, fall under the Sino-Tibetan language family and can be considered as descendants of the Old Chinese mentioned earlier.

In terms of both antiquity and practicality, Chinese undeniably claims the top spot. Mandarin, in particular, holds the distinction of being the most widely spoken language globally, with an impressive count of over 1.1 billion speakers. Therefore, choosing to learn Chinese offers the opportunity to delve into one of the world’s oldest living languages, ensuring a rewarding linguistic journey.

Aramaic – 1100 BC (circa. 3100 years old)

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In the pursuit of identifying the world’s oldest living language, it may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the cultural contexts of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey that Aramaic claims a place on the list. The antiquity of Aramaic is quite remarkable, considering that the Aramaic alphabet served as the precursor to both the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets.

Aramaic, the language historically spoken by the Arameans in ancient Syria, can be traced back to its earliest attestation in 1100 BC. Remarkably, it has endured for over four millennia. Surprisingly, among the languages recognized as the oldest still in use today, Aramaic boasts a more vibrant presence as a living language compared to Sanskrit or Coptic. The global population of Neo-Aramaic language speakers currently ranges from approximately 800,000 to 1,000,000 individuals. This fact adds to the intrigue surrounding Aramaic’s enduring legacy.

Hebrew – 1000 BC (circa. 3000 years old)

which is the oldest language in the world

In the realm of ancient languages that persist today, Hebrew emerges as a significant contender, closely connected to the Hebrew alphabet. Its earliest attestation occurred around 1000 BCE, approximately a century after Aramaic, firmly placing it within the esteemed ‘Oldest Language Still in Use’ Club.

Hebrew possesses a distinctive aspect among the languages on this list: it experienced a period when it was no longer a commonly spoken mother tongue. However, Hebrew’s unique journey includes a successful revival as a living language. From the second century CE onward, Hebrew primarily served as a means of communication for religious texts and correspondence among Jewish individuals who did not share a common language.

The revitalization of Hebrew as a spoken language began in the nineteenth century, spearheaded by passionate activists, particularly in Germany. Today, modern Hebrew boasts a remarkable count of over nine million speakers, with approximately five million using it as their first language. This achievement stands as a testament to the captivating rejuvenation of Hebrew as a living, breathing language.

Latin – (2700 Years Old)

top 10 oldest languages in the world

Latin, the esteemed language of Ancient Rome, held a position of great significance within the empire and its religious practices, which clarifies why the Roman Church regards it as its official language.

The origins of Latin can be traced back to around 700 BC, positioning it as an ancient language. Scholars classify Latin as an Indo-European language, belonging to the same linguistic family as Italian, French, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even English.

Fascinatingly, the original speakers of Latin were known as Romans, a name derived from Romulus, the legendary founder of the language itself.

The expansive influence of the Roman Empire played a pivotal role in disseminating Latin to numerous regions across the world that fell within the empire’s territorial domain. This widespread reach contributed to the language’s global presence.

Farsi or Persian – 522 BC (circa. 2500 years old)

top 10 oldest languages in the world

Although Farsi is not the oldest language within the Indo-Iranian language family, it holds the distinction of being the most ancient surviving spoken language from the Iranian family of languages. Its origins can be traced back to Old Persian, which can be dated back to a period between 522 and 486 BCE.

According to the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, there exists an estimated population of approximately 70 million individuals who are native speakers of Farsi, with a total number of 110 million speakers worldwide. Presently, communities of Farsi speakers can be found not only in Iran but also in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Additionally, Farsi-speaking diasporic communities have also formed across the globe.

Tamil – 300 BC (circa. 2300 years old)

what is the oldest language in the world

Tamil, a remarkable language with a rich history, holds the status of being one of the official languages in Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. It is often regarded as the language in India, and possibly even the world, that has maintained the most direct connection to its classical origins throughout its evolution over time. With a vast number of over 75 million native speakers, it is undeniably a widely spoken first language.

Enthusiastic Tamil speakers might even claim it as the oldest language in the world, and while there is some validity to that statement, it remains challenging to conclusively prove. According to the findings of Russian Linguist Dr. Mikhail S. Andronov, Tamil is believed to have descended from Proto-Dravidian, a reconstructed proto-language that potentially dates back to the fourth millennium BCE, which would indeed make it the oldest language on this list. However, establishing this claim with certainty presents difficulties. Nevertheless, we do possess evidence of Old Tamil dating back to 300 BC, a testament to its ancient roots.

Regardless of its status as the oldest language or not, Tamil undeniably bears the mark of antiquity. It serves as a practical language for anyone considering a visit to the southern regions of India, Sri Lanka, or Singapore!

Korean – no later than 57 BC – Present (circa. 2100 years old)

what is the oldest language in the world

When discussing the oldest languages in the world that are still spoken today, Korean unquestionably deserves a place on any top 10 list. It boasts a rich history spanning thousands of years and serves as the primary language in both North and South Korea, with a substantial native speaker population of at least 77 million individuals.

While the precise timing of the transition from the Proto-Koreanic language to Old Korean is a topic of debate, it is evident that during the establishment of the Silla state in 57 BCE, a Koreanic language or proto-language was already in use.

Fascinatingly, the older Korean writing system known as Hanja, which is based on Chinese characters, can be traced back to 400 BC during the Gojoseon period. At that time, the common language was Ye-Maek, an extinct Koreanic language spoken in Manchuria and eastern Korea. The unique Hangul phonetic characters used in the Korean language today did not emerge until the fifteenth century, making them relatively recent in comparison.

In summary, Korean stands as an ancient language with deep roots, making it a captivating language that has evolved over time. Its significance is indisputable, and it continues to shape the cultural and linguistic landscape of both North and South Korea.

Italian (as descendent of Latin) – 100 BC (circa. 2100 years old)

most oldest language in the world

Let’s conclude with Italian, a language that deserves recognition. Determining the oldest language still in use becomes challenging when considering language lineages. Where does one draw the line between historical and modern languages, especially if one language gave rise to another?

Early Latin was prevalent in the Roman Republic, starting from at least 75 BCE, and possibly even earlier, considering the formation of the Roman Republic in 509 BC. After careful consideration, Italian earns its place on this list as the most direct modern descendant of Latin, although any of the Romance languages could have qualified.

Why select Italian? It remains the language of Rome and has a direct lineage from Vulgar Latin, which was spoken during the Roman Empire and evolved through Italy during the Middle Ages. Today, Italian boasts approximately 67 million native speakers in the European Union and beyond, and its aesthetic appeal attracts numerous individuals who choose to learn the language.

Before we conclude, there is one notable mention: the Arabic language. If you find Italian’s inclusion somewhat debatable, Arabic might be considered as the twelfth language on this list of the world’s oldest languages. Old Arabic can be traced back to the first century CE, and its modern form is spoken by over 300 million people. This makes learning Arabic incredibly valuable, both for history enthusiasts and modern travelers.

which language is oldest in the world

The Evolution of Written Communication

Throughout history, humans have sought ways to record and communicate their thoughts and experiences. The origins of written communication can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where the need to preserve knowledge and transmit information drove the development of complex writing systems. These early forms of writing laid the foundation for the languages we know today.

The Birth of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

One of the earliest known writing systems is ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dating back over 5,000 years, hieroglyphs were a complex combination of pictorial symbols, representing both objects and sounds. These intricate characters were inscribed on the walls of temples and tombs, providing a means for the ancient Egyptians to communicate with the gods and preserve their history for eternity.

The hieroglyphic script consisted of hundreds of individual symbols, each with its own meaning and phonetic value. The scribes, highly skilled individuals, played a crucial role in the ancient Egyptian society, as they were responsible for recording important events, religious rituals, and administrative matters. The decipherment of hieroglyphs in the 19th century opened up a whole new world of understanding about the ancient Egyptian civilization.

The Complexity of Ancient Mesopotamian Cuneiform

In the fertile lands of Mesopotamia, another ancient writing system emerged around 3,500 BC. Known as cuneiform, this script was developed by the Sumerians and later adopted by other civilizations in the region, such as the Babylonians and Assyrians. Cuneiform was created using a wedge-shaped stylus, which was pressed into soft clay tablets.

Cuneiform was a highly complex writing system, consisting of over 1,200 unique signs. These signs represented not only objects and sounds but also abstract concepts and grammatical elements. The scribes who mastered cuneiform were highly respected individuals, as their skills were essential for maintaining administrative records, writing legal documents, and preserving literature. The decipherment of cuneiform in the 19th century provided valuable insights into the daily lives and achievements of the Mesopotamian civilizations.

The Rise of Sanskrit in Ancient India

In the ancient Indian subcontinent, another remarkable language emerged around 1500 BC. Known as Sanskrit, it is considered the language of the gods in Hindu mythology. Sanskrit was initially an oral tradition, with sacred hymns and chants passed down through generations. However, the need for a standardized written form led to the development of a script called Devanagari.

Sanskrit is renowned for its precise grammar and vast vocabulary. It served as the language of ancient Indian religious texts, such as the Vedas and Upanishads, and was also used for philosophical and scientific discourse. Sanskrit played a significant role in shaping the culture and spiritual traditions of ancient India, and its influence can still be felt today.

The Impact of Ancient Languages on Modern Society

The ancient languages we have explored so far have left an indelible mark on modern society. They have shaped our understanding of history, literature, religion, and even science. The study of ancient languages provides us with valuable insights into the development of human civilization and the evolution of our collective knowledge.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs have allowed us to unlock the secrets of the pharaohs and gain a deeper understanding of their rituals, beliefs, and social structures. Cuneiform has shed light on the wisdom and achievements of the Mesopotamian civilizations, revealing remarkable advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and law. Sanskrit has preserved the ancient wisdom of India, offering profound insights into philosophy, spirituality, and the human condition.

The Preservation and Decipherment of Ancient Scripts

Preserving ancient scripts and deciphering them is a monumental task that requires the collaboration of linguists, archaeologists, historians, and other experts. These scripts are often written on fragile materials such as papyrus, clay tablets, or palm leaves, making their preservation a race against time. Additionally, the decipherment process involves painstakingly analyzing the script, comparing it to known languages, and making educated guesses about its meaning.

The Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799, played a pivotal role in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. This ancient artifact, inscribed with a decree in three scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek – provided the key to unlocking the mysteries of the hieroglyphic script. Similarly, the decipherment of cuneiform was made possible through the discovery of the Behistun Inscription, a trilingual inscription found in Iran in the 19th century.

Linguistic Similarities and Connections Between Ancient Languages

As scholars explore ancient languages, they often discover surprising linguistic similarities and connections. These connections provide invaluable insights into the migration patterns, cultural exchanges, and trade routes of ancient civilizations. For example, the decipherment of cuneiform revealed the existence of a language family called Semitic, which includes ancient Akkadian, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Comparative linguistics also allows us to trace the evolution of languages and identify common roots. Sanskrit, for instance, shares similarities with ancient Greek and Latin, indicating a common ancestral language from which they all descended. These linguistic connections offer a glimpse into the interconnectedness of ancient civilizations and the shared human experience.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Ancient Languages Through Archaeology

Archaeology plays a vital role in unraveling the mysteries of ancient languages. The discovery of ancient texts, inscriptions, and artifacts provides tangible evidence of the written language and its usage. For example, the discovery of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead has allowed us to gain insights into the religious beliefs and rituals of the ancient Egyptians.

Archaeologists also uncover linguistic artifacts like bilingual inscriptions or language-learning texts, which provide valuable clues for decipherment. By studying the context in which these artifacts were found, archaeologists can piece together the puzzle of ancient languages, reconstructing lost grammatical rules, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of Ancient Languages

The ancient languages we have explored in this journey hold a significant place in human history. From the enigmatic hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt to the sacred scriptures of Sanskrit, these languages have shaped our understanding of the past and continue to inspire us today. They provide a glimpse into the minds and cultures of our ancestors, revealing the beauty and complexity of human expression.

As we delve deeper into the origins of the oldest languages, we come to appreciate the enduring legacy they have left behind. They are not merely relics of the past but living testimonies to the power of language and its ability to connect us across time and space. So, let us continue to explore, decipher, and preserve these ancient languages, for they are the keys to unlocking the secrets of our collective heritage.

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