Records from primitive times show that before languages developed, people communicated with each other using hand gestures, signals, and odd sounds. Then, around 10,000 years ago, as the concept of linguistics came to exist, it provided a method of communication that was standardised and, thus, more understandable.
Whilst the origin of the first-ever language is still highly debated, certain ancient scriptures and cave carvings reveal some of the oldest languages in the world.
Below are some languages that have stood the test of time and a few that haven’t:
Basque: Spoken almost exclusively in the Basque country by approximately 750,000 native speakers and about 1,185,000 passive speakers. Basque remains an ancient language that is unique, as:
- its origins remain a mystery; and
- despite being natively spoken by a small population of Spain and France, it remains completely unrelated to Spanish and French.
Basque is the only remaining Old European language, having survived on its own for centuries, while the others disappeared before the spread of Indo-European languages.
Tamil: Tamil is the oldest (dating back some 2,200 years) living language in the world. Inscriptions in Tamil dating back to the 3rd century BC have been found. It is the official language of Sri Lanka, Singapore, and India (particularly popular in Tamil Nadu, where it is the official language) and is spoken by nearly 80 million people. Tamil is the only classical language that has survived all the way through to the modern world. It forms part of the Dravidian Language family.
Sanskrit: Unlike Tamil, which is still a widely spoken language, the Sanskrit language fell out of widespread common usage around 600 BC. It is now a ‘holy language’ found in the scriptures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. According to studies, Sanskrit forms the base for many European languages and is still one of India’s official languages.
Aramaic: One of the oldest yet prestigious languages in the world, the Aramaic language belongs to the Afro-Asiatic region and was spoken by people — as far back as at least three millenniums (millennia) ago. It was used as the official language for multiple royal dynasties. Arabic and other older languages took words from the Aramaic language and can find their roots in it. Over million people still speak Aramaic as their first language.
Greek: Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus and was first spoken in Greece and Asia Minor, which is now part of Turkey. Greek has been used as a written language for over 3,000 years, which is longer than any other Indo-European languages spoken today. This history is divided into three stages, Ancient, Medieval and Modern Greek. Today, 15 million people, mostly residing in Greece and Cyprus, speak Greek.
Arabic: The Arab world is known for its Golden Age under the Islamic empire, which put the Arabic language on the map for the entire world. This ancient Semite language was being used as far back as 125 AD. It was used by poets in the Arab world and was reflected in the Quran, which is one of the most read books in the world. Arabic itself consists of many different dialects and variants; however, most of it has been unified under Classical Arabic. Arabic has also been the inspiration behind languages like Urdu, which also has a script similar to Arabic.
Icelandic: The Vikings’ language, Icelandic, takes roots from the Norse culture and derives its script from the Old Norse languages. Despite its age, it is still spoken as the first language by over 3 million people worldwide, ranging from Iceland to Canada, some parts of Denmark and in the USA. Icelandic is a North Germanic Language.
Persian: Written in an altered version of the Arabic language, Persian (or Farsi as it is commonly known) is a language that dates back 2,500 years. It was the Persian Empire’s official language and has left its mark in regions of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and other nearby areas.
Despite being a uniform singular language of the Persian Empire, multiple variants such as the Dari, Tajik, etc., emerged for Persian. In Tajikistan, it was also being written in a different script than Arabic called the Cyrillic alphabet. Persian, like other languages rooted in the Islamic world, has drawn inspiration from the religion; most of the Persian writers’ fine work is in dedication to Islam.
Farsi: Farsi is the common language spoken in modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is the direct descendant of Old Persian language, which was the official language of the Persian Empire. Modern Persian emerged around 800 CE, and it has changed little since then. It is often said that Farsi is the language of the Sufi saints of Islam.
Egyptian: Egypt is considered to be one of the oldest civilisations in the world, and Egyptian Coptic is the oldest indigenous language of Egypt. Written records of its usage date back to 3,400 BC, making it an ancient language. Coptic was the most widely spoken language in Egypt until the late 17th century AD when Egyptian Arabic, post-Muslim invasion replaced it. Coptic is still used as the liturgical language at the Coptic Church in Egypt, but only a handful of people fluently speak the language today.
Lithuanian: Lithuanian forms a part of the group of the Indo-European language, which spawned modern languages like German, Italian and English. It is closely related to Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek. Today, Lithuanian serves as the official language of the Republic of Lithuania and is also one of the official languages of the European Union. It is protected by special institutions and linguistic laws.
Hebrew: Hebrew lost common usage around 400 AD. With the rise of Zionism in the 19th and 20th centuries, Hebrew underwent a revival age and became the official language of Israel. Modern Hebrew differs from the Biblical version, but native speakers of the language can completely comprehend what is written in the ancient texts. Modern Hebrew, in many ways, is influenced by other Jewish languages. Hebrew is spoken today by over nine million people and is the official language of Israel. Being a Semite language, Hebrew and Arabic are similar in terms of their grammar style and share many common words despite their vastly different scripts. Hebrew is considered a ‘holy language’ because the Old Testament was written in it. It is also one of the oldest languages in which the Bible was written.
Irish Gaelic: Irish Gaelic, Gaelic, Erse, or Irish is a member of the Goidelic group of Celtic languages, spoken in Ireland. Irish Gaelic has Celtic origins from the Bronze Age. However, the literary tradition can be traced back to the 6th century AD. The Irish language is related to Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton languages. The oldest inscriptions of the language can be seen in Ogham stones of the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
Chinese: Today, Chinese is spoken by about 1.2 billion people worldwide. It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. The language has many complex dialects. The Chinese characters are about 3,000 years old. The hieroglyphs can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty of the 16th – 11th centuries BC. However, the written script was simplified as recently as 1956 for ease of understanding.
Akkadian: Akkadian is an extinct East Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia (Akkad, Assyria, Isin, Larsa and Babylonia) from the 3rd millennium BC until its gradual replacement by Akkadian-influenced Old Aramaic among Mesopotamians by the 8th century BC. It is the oldest Semitic language for which records exist.
Sumerian: Sumerian, the language of ancient Sumer and an isolated language (unrelated to others), was spoken in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). During the 3rd millennium BC, there was widespread bilingualism (the ability to use two languages). Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language around 2,000 BC, but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Akkadian-speaking Mesopotamian states such as Assyria and Babylonia until the 1st century AD.
Armenian: Armenian is an Indo-European language belonging to an independent branch of which it is the only member. It is the official language of Armenia and is genetically related to languages such as Hittite, Sanskrit, Avestan, Greek, Latin, Gothic, English, and Slavic. There are around 6.7 million Armenian speakers, the majority (about 3.4 million) of whom live in Armenia, and most of the remainder live in Georgia and Russia. The language has developed since the time of the first Armenian dynasty (6th century BC). Currently, it has its own branch in the language family with two dialects: Eastern and Western
Latin: Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.
Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area around present-day Rome (then known as Latium) and, through the power and reach of the Roman Republic, became the dominant language in Italia and subsequently throughout the realms of the Roman Empire. Even after the fall of Western Rome, Latin was the common language of international communication, science, scholarship and academia in Europe until well into the 18th century when other regional vernaculars (including its own descendants, the Romance languages) supplanted it in common academic and political usage, and it eventually became a ‘dead’ language in the modern linguistic definition. Latin is a highly inflected language, with:
- three distinct genders,
- six or seven noun cases,
- five declensions,
- four verb conjugations,
- six tenses,
- three persons,
- three moods,
- two voices,
- two or three aspects, and two numbers.
Sources and Further Information
- Dravidian Languages: A family of some 70 languages spoken primarily in South Asia. The Dravidian languages are spoken by more than 215 million people in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dravidian-languages ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogham ↑