Bloggers and language enthusiasts all over the Internet claim to know which languages are the oldest and how many of them are still in use worldwide. Surprisingly enough, if you ever read a few of such articles you must have noticed that they all tell a slightly different story. The truth is that there is no unambiguous answer to the question.
DATING A LANGUAGE IS NOT THAT EASY
The lists vary due to different approach, that is whether dead languages are included into the list, whether historical evidence and linguistic data are taken into account, and so on. The popularity of languages also have an effect. But all of these criteria are not objective. Historical evidence does not prove how long was the language used before it was first written on a piece of leather or stone. And you can never know how many ancient texts are yet to be discovered. In this sense, linguistic data is more reliable. But it cannot tell the age of the language. It can only set a wide range regarding the time of language’s origins, sometimes barely fitting into a single millennium. That’s because languages are not born like people are. They take time to develop from their previous forms, so their “birth” goes on for many decades, if not ages. Not even mentioning many other problems such as the different criteria that could be set for deciding when the language has changed enough to be given a separate name.
WHY ARE THESE LANGUAGES THE OLDEST?
Instead of making another list of “oldest languages”, we will inspect those that often appear in such lists and see the reasons behind their appearance there. So let’s get started:
ARABIC. This name is used for Classical Arabic, which, according to historical evidence, developed from its predecessors in 6th century AD. Nowadays it comprises of over 20 dialects, some of which are so unlike the others that their speakers are unable to understand each other. It is the 5th most popular language in the world.
ARAMAIC. Like arabic, this is a group of languages. According to historical evidence, it is at least 3,000 years old. Its modern forms still exist today among various groups, but they are all on the brink of extinction, due to the speakers being influenced by Hebrew and Arabic, as well as other languages.
ARMENIAN. Historical data indicate the language existed since 5th century AD, though Armenians themselves are much older than that. The language has its own unique writing system and is still spoken today in two main forms: Eastern and Western.
BASQUE. Spoken today in Southwestern France and Northern Spain, this language is likely to be very old, though it has faced a substantial Latin influence. According to linguistic data, the language is unlike its Indo-European neighbours, suggesting it could be over 4,000 years old.
CHINESE. This is a group of related, but different languages, including dialect groups like Mandarin, Yue, Wu and others. While its history (based on written artefacts) traces back to the 2nd millennium BC, it remains the most popular language group in the world.
EGYPTIAN. This language has its modern counterpart, Coptic, which is liturgical language in Coptic churches today. However the actual Egyptian is considered to be dead. The historical evidence proves it is almost 5,000 years old, making it one of the oldest known languages as far as written artefacts can tell.
FARSI/PERSIAN. Still spoken in contemporary Iran, Afghanistan and a few other countries, the modern form of the language is known since around 800 AD. It’s early form, Old Persian, is attested by historical data since 500 BC.
FINNISH. Used today in Finland and, by lesser degree, in Sweden and Norway. Linguistic data indicates that its origins can be traced back to the 1st millennium BC. It is from Finnic language family, making it seem difficult for its Indo-European-speaking neighbours.
GEORGIAN. A language from Kartvelian language family. While historical evidence dates this language since 500 AD, linguistic data presumes Georgian distinguished from the family in the 1st millennium BC. Throughout its history, the language was being written in a number of different systems.
GREEK. This is one of the scientific languages of contemporary world and is an official language in Greece and Cyprus. Linguistic data traces its origins in the late 3rd millennium BC while historical evidence backs it up at the mid 2nd millennium BC. The similarity between modern and classical Greek is often emphasised as well, making this language a real antiquary.
HEBREW. This language existed only in written form since the first centuries AD, however it was revived as a spoken language in the 19th century.
Hebrew is about 3,000 years old, according to linguistic data. Historical accounts claim it was in usage in 12th century BC, however these sources are doubted by scholars.
ICELANDIC. The oldest known texts in Icelandic are dated around 1100 AD, however it is the linguistic parameters that bring this language to the list of the ancient ones. Its grammar structure suggests that the language has retained the most archaic form among all the Germanic languages. Though the language has changed considerably since the 12th century, other languages of the branch have changed even more.
IRISH GAELIC. The first official language and at the same time a minority language of Ireland. It is slowly, but certainly deteriorating with only a few villages left where people use it in their everyday lives. According to historical data, its usage started around 4th century AD, when it was first used on stone monuments called Ogham.
KOREAN. Similar to Basque in Europe, Korean is nothing like its neighbours in Far East. The modern language has developed through many phases, the earliest of which is determined by historical data to have started around 1st century AD. It’s origins are even older, but unclear.
LATIN. The number one scientific language in the world and lingua franca of Classical Antiquity period. Its first phase, referred to as Old Latin, was first used in Roman Kingdom since around 6th century BC, which is known from historical records.
LITHUANIAN. While historical records trace this language’s past barely to 1500 AD, many aspects of the language are considered to be the oldest or older than most among living languages of Indo-European family, including aforementioned Icelandic. Its parent branches are not clearly dated, but Balto-Slavic branch is believed to have distinguished from common Indo-European in the mid 2nd millennium BC.
SANSKRIT. A parent of Old Persian and other Iranian languages. The first historical account is dated to the 2nd century BC, but there are theories that suggest the previous forms of the language are up to 4,000 years old. The language is still used by few people in India, though rarely for everyday communication.
SUMERIAN. The oldest known language according to historical evidence. It can be traced back to the 31st century BC. Its usage was limited since the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC and completely died until 1st century AD.
TAMIL. Spoken mostly in Singapore, Sri Lanka and India, this language is over 2,000 years old according to historical data, which makes it oldest among Indian languages if based on artifacts. However, linguists think it was used around 3rd millennium BC, which is the reason why many think it is the oldest language still in existence.
NOT A COMPETITION
As you can see, there is no clear winner that could boast of being the oldest known language in the world. After all, this is not a competition. All languages are beautiful and all should be respected, despite their lineage, popularity and difficulty.
You can actually try to learn most of them with Bliu Bliu. The exceptions being dead languages as well as Aramaic, Chinese, Georgian and Sanskrit. One from the list, namely Lithuanian, is actually among the most popular target languages. If you want a challenge with great benefits, give these languages a try. The more you know about them, the better you will see their beauty and uniqueness, the better you will understand your own language!
So pick a friend and learn languages together !