12 Oldest Languages in World History
Identifying the oldest languages in the world can be challenging due to the lack of written records for many ancient languages.
However, based on the evidence we have from inscriptions, texts, and other archaeological findings, here are some of the world’s oldest languages:
The language of ancient Sumer, a region located in modern-day southern Iraq. The Sumerians are credited with creating one of the world’s first writing systems, cuneiform, around 3200 BC.
This writing system derives its name from the Latin word “cuneus,” meaning “wedge.” The name reflects the wedge-shaped marks made by the stylus on clay tablets. These marks represented words or syllables and allowed the Sumerians to record everything from trade transactions to religious texts and myths.
Cuneiform was a revolutionary invention. It is commonly believed that before its creation, humans primarily relied on oral traditions and memory. With cuneiform, they could document knowledge, pass down stories across generations, establish laws, and maintain economic records. This marked a significant step in the evolution of human societies, laying the foundation for organized governance, trade, and literature.
The roots of the ancient Egyptian language date back to around 3300 BC. Evidence of its earliest form can be found in inscriptions and artifacts from that time.
Old Egyptian is the earliest attested stage of the language, used during the Old Kingdom period (circa 2700-2100 BC). Texts from this era include the famous “Pyramid Texts”, religious inscriptions found inside some pyramids.
Flourishing during the Middle Kingdom period (circa 2100-1600 BC), Middle Egyptian was pivotal as it became the classical standard for later literature, religious texts, and monumental inscriptions, even when it was no longer spoken colloquially. It’s the stage of the language that most Egyptologists study and is often used in teaching hieroglyphs today.
Late Egyptian was used during the New Kingdom period (circa 1600-700 BC). It reflects changes in grammar and vocabulary and is found in a variety of administrative, legal, and literary texts.
The Ancient Egyptian language was primarily written in a script known as hieroglyphs – intricate symbols representing words or sounds. These were used for monumental inscriptions, religious texts, and official decrees. Over time, simpler scripts like Hieratic and, later, Demotic developed for everyday use and record-keeping.
Akkadian emerged in ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which corresponds to parts of modern-day Iraq.
Its earliest traces can be dated back to around 2500 BC, and it flourished as a major language for many centuries thereafter.
Akkadian and Sumerian coexisted in Mesopotamia for a significant period. While Sumerian was not a Semitic language, Akkadian was, and it eventually came to dominate and replace Sumerian as the major spoken and written language of the region.
The Akkadian language used the cuneiform writing system, which was originally developed by the Sumerians. Cuneiform, meaning “wedge-shaped”, refers to the way characters were inscribed onto clay tablets using a stylus. Although Akkadian adopted this script, it modified and expanded the system to suit its own linguistic structure and vocabulary.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Akkadian played a crucial role in the ancient Near East. It was used for administration, trade, literature, and diplomacy, and its significance was such that even after the decline of the Akkadian Empire, the language remained in use for scholarly and religious purposes for many centuries.
Sanskrit originated in ancient India, and its roots are intertwined with the region’s vast history, literature, and religious traditions. It is not just a language but also a means through which many of India’s foundational texts, both religious and literary, were composed.
The earliest form of Sanskrit, known as Vedic Sanskrit, dates back to the second millennium BC. This places it among the world’s oldest languages with written records.
The Rigveda, composed during this period, is one of the oldest known texts written in Vedic Sanskrit. It’s a collection of hymns dedicated to various deities and provides invaluable insights into the religious, philosophical, and social environment of ancient India.
Sanskrit has been the bedrock for a significant portion of India’s cultural and philosophical literature. It has also influenced several modern languages of the Indian subcontinent.
Many sacred texts of major Indian religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, were composed in Sanskrit, underscoring its religious significance.
Elam refers to a pre-Iranian civilization and a major Bronze Age culture. Geographically, it covered the region that is now southwestern Iran.
The existence of the Elamite language is primarily known through various inscriptions that have been discovered. These inscriptions provide a tangible link to the language and offer insights into the history and culture of the Elamite civilization.
These inscriptions trace back to approximately 2500 BC, situating Elamite as one of the ancient languages of the world.
Elamite stands out because it isn’t directly related to the major language families. Its origins and affiliations remain a subject of study and debate among linguists.
The Hittites, a dominant civilization of the Bronze Age in Anatolia, spoke the Hittite language. These people established a vast empire with its heartland in Hattusa, an ancient city located in present-day Turkey.
While the core region where Hittite was spoken was Anatolia, its influence wasn’t limited to this area alone. The language and its cultural impact also reached parts of the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia, reflecting the expanse and interactions of the Hittite Empire.
The Hittites adopted the cuneiform script, a writing system developed by earlier Mesopotamian civilizations, to record their language. This script, composed of wedge-shaped marks made on clay tablets, was a vital medium for various ancient languages of the region.
The tangible evidence we have of the Hittite language is primarily from cuneiform records. These documents span from the 17th to the 13th centuries BC. Among these, the Anitta text from the 17th century BC stands out as a significant piece of ancient Hittite writing.
Interestingly, even before these structured records, traces of the Hittite language can be found in the Old Assyrian context. As early as the 20th century BC, Hittite loanwords and individual names have been identified. This makes Hittite the earliest known member of the Indo-European language family with a recorded presence.
MINOAN LINEAR A
Located in the Mediterranean Sea, Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. In ancient times, it was home to the Minoan civilization, one of Europe’s earliest advanced civilizations.
The use of Minoan Linear A script is mainly dated between 1800-1450 BC. This period marks the zenith of Minoan culture and influence.
Despite extensive efforts by scholars and linguists, Linear A remains one of the world’s undeciphered writing systems. While its successor, Linear B, has been successfully deciphered and is known to represent an early form of Greek, Linear A’s language and meaning remain enigmatic.
Linear A was used for religious and administrative documents, which suggests its importance in the bureaucratic and religious activities of Minoan society.
Linear A is believed to have evolved from another script known as “Cretan Hieroglyphs,” and it eventually gave way to Linear B, which was used by the Mycenaeans, the successors to the Minoans in the region.
Existing inscriptions in the Luwian language can be dated back to around 2000 BC, making it one of the ancient languages of the Anatolian region.
While the Hittite official language was Hittite, Luwian held considerable importance. It was used in various realms of Hittite society, including administration and religion.
Luwian was expressed in two scripts: cuneiform, which was used for official and monumental inscriptions, and a unique hieroglyphic system, known as Anatolian hieroglyphs or Luwian hieroglyphs, primarily employed for rock inscriptions and monumental uses.
MYCENAEAN GREEK (LINEAR B)
The Mycenaeans were an early Greek civilization based in the Peloponnese, with important centers such as Mycenae and Pylos. They were the dominant culture in Greece during the Late Bronze Age.
Records of the Mycenaean Greek language in the Linear B script date back to around 1450 BC. This script offers valuable insights into the Mycenaean administration, religion, and daily life.
Mycenaean Greek was inscribed using Linear B, a syllabic script that was an adaptation of the Minoan Linear A. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick was a groundbreaking achievement in the field of archaeology and linguistics, revealing it to be an early form of Greek.
Mycenaean Greek shows some differences from later forms of Ancient Greek due to its age and the natural evolution of languages over time. Its vocabulary and grammar provide a unique snapshot of Greek at this early stage.
Old Chinese, also known as Archaic Chinese, refers to the earliest historically attested stage of the Chinese language. It was spoken during the early and middle Zhou dynasty (circa 1046–256 BC) and possibly even earlier during the Shang dynasty.
The origins of Old Chinese can be traced back to the inscriptions on oracle bones from the Shang dynasty (circa 1250–1046 BC).
As time progressed, Old Chinese evolved into various forms leading up to Middle Chinese, spoken during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).
Old Chinese had a simpler phonological structure compared to its successors. It is believed to have lacked tonal distinctions, which are a hallmark of later stages of the language.
The grammar was notably different from that of Modern Standard Mandarin, being more analytic in nature.
The language also possesses a rich vocabulary with many words that have evolved or disappeared in modern Chinese.
Texts like the “Qieyun,” compiled in the Sui and Tang dynasties, were based on Old Chinese pronunciations and helped in understanding its phonology.
Also, many of China’s foundational texts, such as the “Classic of Poetry” (Shijing) and the “Book of Documents” (Shujing), were composed in Old Chinese. Their linguistic characteristics have provided scholars with insights into the language’s structure.
Tamil belongs to the Dravidian language family and has been spoken for over 2,500 years, with some estimates suggesting its origins go back even further.
The language is recognized as a classical language by the government of India due to its ancient literary tradition. The earliest known Tamil literature, the Sangam literature, dates back to the 500 BC-300 AD period.
While primarily spoken in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the union territory of Puducherry, Tamil has spread over the years to countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, and parts of Africa due to trade, migration, and colonization.
READ MORE: Major Facts about Tamil Language
Questions and Answers
Why is it difficult identifying the oldest languages in world history?
The process of determining the oldest languages is difficult primarily because many ancient civilizations might have had languages that they only spoke, without ever writing them down. In the absence of any written record or artifact, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to trace such languages.
How old is the English Language?
Many contemporary languages have emerged from ancestral languages, some of which no longer exist. The version of English we speak now, for instance, is quite different from Middle English. Contrary to what some might think, English isn’t one of the ancient languages. In fact, Modern English is relatively young, with its origins dating back just about 1,400 years.
English originally evolved from the Germanic languages spoken by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, tribes that migrated to England in the early medieval period.
Over time, English underwent significant transformations due to the influence of other languages, such as Norse from Viking invasions and Latin and French from the Norman Conquest in 1066.
As the British Empire expanded, so did the English language, reaching continents like North America, Australia, Africa, and parts of Asia.
In more recent times, the global influence of English-speaking countries in areas like trade, culture, science, and technology, especially the USA, has further propelled English to be a dominant global lingua franca.
As of 2023, over 1.5 billion people across the world either speak English as their first language, as a second language, or are learning it, making it one of the most widely spoken and influential languages globally.
Other interesting facts
- There’s no universally agreed-upon method to classify and count “languages” versus “dialects.” Factors like political boundaries, mutual intelligibility, and cultural identity can blur the lines. This makes it difficult to arrive at a definite number of distinct languages.
- Despite the above challenges, linguistic researchers and anthropologists have arrived at an approximate figure, estimating about 7,000 languages spoken globally. This number is based on various criteria, like unique vocabulary, grammar, or distinct phonological systems.
- There is a striking disparity in the distribution of language speakers. While there are thousands of languages, only about 200 of them are spoken by large communities with over a million speakers. This fact underscores how many languages have relatively small speaking populations.
- If the vast majority of the 7,000 languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people, it indicates that many languages are at risk of becoming endangered or extinct, especially if not passed down to younger generations.
While these languages have ancient origins, some, like Tamil and Sanskrit, still have communities of speakers and are studied and revered in the modern era. Also, the list isn’t exhaustive, and the exact ranking may vary based on new archaeological findings and linguistic research.
It’s worth noting that determining the age of a language can be tricky. For instance, spoken forms of a language might have existed for centuries or even millennia before they were ever written down. Additionally, there are other ancient languages, not listed here, for which the dating is either contentious or less precise.