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Records from primitive times show that before languages developed, people communicated with each other using hand gestures, signals, and odd sounds or grunts. Then, around 10,000 years ago, as the concept of linguistics came into existence, it provided a method of communication that was standardised and, thus, more understandable. The course of humankind was changed forever. Though the origin of the first-ever language is highly debated throughout the world, certain ancient scriptures and cave carvings reveal some of the oldest languages in the world.

Writing first appeared in the Near East at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC. A very limited number of languages are attested in the area from before the Bronze Age collapse and the rise of alphabetic writing:

  • the Sumerian, Hattic and Elamite language isolates
  • Hurrian from the small Hurro-Urartian family
  • Afro-Asiatic in the form of the Egyptian and Semitic languages and
  • Indo-European (Anatolian languages and Mycenaean Greek).

In East Asia, towards the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the Sino-Tibetan family was represented by Old Chinese.

There are also several undeciphered Bronze Age records:

  • Proto-Elamite script and Linear Elamite
  • The Indus script (claimed to record a “Harappan language”)
  • Cretan hieroglyphs and Linear A (encoding a possible “Minoan language”)[1]
  • The Cypro-Minoan syllabary[2]

Timeline of the world’s oldest languages spoken today[3]

  • Egyptian (2690 BC – Present)
  • Sanskrit (1500 BC – Present)
  • Greek (1450 BC – Present)
  • Chinese (1250 – Present)
  • Aramaic (1100 BC – Present)
  • Hebrew (1000 BC–200 AD, 1800 – Present)
  • Farsi (522 BC – Present)
  • Tamil (300 BC – Present)
  • Korean (no later than 57 BC – Present)
  • Italian (as a descendent of Latin, 100 BC – Present)
  • Arabic (roughly 100 AD-Present)

Picture Credit: “ancient language…” by Abouid is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Here are some languages that have stood the test of time and a few that haven’t:

Spoken almost exclusively in the Basque country by approximately 750,000 native speakers and about 1,185,000 passive speakers. Basque remains a unique ancient language, 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 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[4].

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.

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 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 language spoken today. This history is divided into three stages, Ancient, Medieval and Modern Greek. Today, 15 million people, primarily residing in Greece and Cyprus, speak Greek.

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.

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 three million people worldwide, ranging from Iceland to Canada, some parts of Denmark and in the USA. Icelandic is a North Germanic Language.

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 is the common language spoken in modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is the direct descendant of the 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.

Egypt is considered 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 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. The language is protected by special institutions and linguistic laws.

Hebrew lost common usage around 400 CE. 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 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 are members 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[5] of the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

Today, Chinese is spoken by about 1.2 billion people in the world. It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. The language has many complex dialects. The Chinese characters are about 3,000 years ago. The hieroglyphs can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty of 16th to 11th century BC. However, the written script was simplified as recently as 1956 for ease of understanding.

Akkadian is an extinct East Semitic language 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, the language of ancient Sumer and a language isolate (unrelated to others), were 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.

Korean is a language that dates back thousands of years. Spoken as the primary language in both North and South Korea, there are at least 77 million native speakers of Korean today.  There is some dispute about precisely when Proto-Koreanic language transitioned into Old Korean, but it’s clear that by the Silla state, established in 57 BC, there was a Koreanic language or proto-language in use. Interestingly, the older Korean writing system known as Hanja, based on Chinese characters, can be dated back to 400 BC and the Gojoseon period when Ye-Maek, an extinct Koreanic language from Manchuria and eastern Korea, was the common language. Today, the Hangul phonetic characters unique to the Korean language weren’t developed until the 15th century[6].

The Armenian language is also part of the Indo-European linguistic group, which the Armenians speak. Bibles written in the 5th century exist as the earliest appearance of the language. The Armenian language originated in 450 BC. At present, about 5 per cent of people speak this language. This language is spoken in Mesopotamia and the intermediate valleys of the caucus and in the southeastern region of the Black Sea. The region falls in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (northwestern Iran). It is the official language of the Republic of Armenia[7].

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area around present-day Rome (then known as Latium) and, through the power 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 still 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. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

A picture containing building, building material, stone, brick Description automatically generated
Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) Inscription for 5th century Roman Consul Decius Marius Venantius Basilius in the Colosseum in RomeCIL VI 1716 c, VI 32094 c.
Attribution: By Wknight94 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Latin Derivatives: [8]
By the late Roman Republic (75 BC), Old Latin had been standardised into Classical Latin used by educated elites. Vulgar Latin was the colloquial form spoken at that time among lower-class commoners and attested in inscriptions and the works of comic playwrights like Plautus and Terence and author Petronius. Late Latin is the written language from the 3rd century; its various Vulgar Latin dialects developed in the 6th to 9th centuries into the modern Romance languages, such as Italian, Sardinian, Venetian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Piedmontese, Lombard, French, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, Corsican, Ladin, Friulan, Romansh, Catalan/Valencian, Aragonese, Spanish, Asturian, Galician, Portuguese and Romanian. Medieval Latin was used during the Middle Ages as a literary language from the 9th century to the Renaissance, which then used Renaissance Latin. Later, New Latin evolved during the early modern era to eventually become the rarely spoken Contemporary Latin, one of which, the Ecclesiastical Latin, remains the official language of the Holy See and the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church at Vatican City.

Latin has also greatly influenced the English language and historically contributed many words to the English lexicon via the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxons and the Norman conquest. In particular, Latin (and Ancient Greek) roots are still used in English descriptions of theology, science disciplines (especially anatomy and taxonomy), medicine, and law.

It has been estimated that the total number of languages ​​in the world is about 6809, out of which the number of speakers of 90 per cent of the languages ​​is less than 100,000, and:

  • There are about 200 to 150 languages ​​spoken by more than one million people.
  • There are about 357 languages ​​that only 50 people speak.
  • There are also 46 languages ​​whose number of speakers is only one.[9]

And finally, Papua New Guinea holds the record for most languages in one country, with an estimated 840. Even the United States, a country not known for its multilingualism, is home to over 350 languages[10].

Sources and Further Reading
  1.  Woodard (2008), p2, and “Linear A – Undeciphered Writing System of the Minoans”. 2013-07-13. 
  2. Woodard (2008), p3.
  3. Source:
  4. Dravidian is 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:
  5. Ogham stones: An ancient rune-like writing system that is carved into stones across Ireland.
  6. Source:
  7. Source:
  8. Source:
  9. Source:
  10. Source:

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