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How Do We Measure The Oldest Language In The World?

Yes, you can map languages and their histories in the branches of family trees. But finding the oldest language in the world isn’t as simple as counting rings.
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How Do We Measure The Oldest Language In The World?

At first glance, identifying the oldest language doesn’t seem too difficult. That’s what language historians are for, right? Linguists tend to agree that the search for the oldest language in the world isn’t as straightforward as it seems, however. How does one define linguistic age and the birth (and death) that should theoretically bookend it?

There are those languages that once saw heydays and golden ages many centuries ago but are now long defunct, deceased and decommissioned; take Latin, for example, which was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire for centuries, but now mostly hangs on in high school and college classrooms, as well as scientific and legal nomenclature. But if you consider Latin’s descendants, the Romance languages, then technically, the language never really died off; it only changed shape.

If we try to identify the oldest word or words in the world, we’re thinking more about the concepts that have existed in people’s lexicons for millennia, not about the persistence of some particular set of syllables that refers to that concept. The word for “man” has taken many different forms throughout time and linguistic evolution, but languages worldwide have almost always had a word for “man.”

You can extend that idea to the concept of language generally, that unique human faculty that’s been a part of our DNA for hundreds of thousands of years, though many linguists disagree on for exactly how long. If you believe, as many language scholars do, that all languages share a common ancestor, then technically, all human languages are the same age — the age of language itself.

You could argue that the world’s oldest languages are the ones that were spoken first. Could they be, then, something like (or even earlier than) Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed proto-language believed to be spoken before 3500 BCE, and thought to be the ancestor to many of today’s Indo-European languages like Spanish, English, German, Bengali, Greek and Hindi? 

What about languages that were documented in written form first? Sumerian cuneiform script, which dates back to the early 3rd millennium BCE, is generally considered to be one of the earliest known written languages. But it’s not clear if it came before writings in Ancient Egyptian, and because these languages aren’t spoken today, can either be considered the oldest?

It’s clear that there are a whole a lot of questions surrounding the bigger query of what the oldest language in the world is. Keep reading to find out more about some of the top contenders!

Looking For The (Living) Oldest Language In The World

In the quest to determine the oldest language in the world, it’s prudent to consider only the world’s living languages — those that are still spoken today by some linguistic community, however small and however far away. Setting these parameters helps narrow the search.

Chinese

Could the world’s most spoken language also be its oldest? Linguists are not sure exactly when Chinese and other closely related Sino-Tibetan languages like Burmese and Tibetan split off from Proto-Sinitic languages, but the earliest examples of the language ever found are in inscriptions on oracle bones and tortoise shells from around the early 2nd millennium BCE, around the start of the Shang Dynasty. Linguists usually classify the first major period of the language’s history as Archaic Chinese, which was spoken in the early and middle phase of the Zhou Dynasty, beginning in the 11th century BCE. Next came Middle Chinese, which gave rise to all contemporary variations of the language (like Mandarin and Cantonese).

Tamil

Some people think they’ve found a pretty good answer to the oldest language question in Tamil, a Dravidian language that’s existed without interruption for more than two thousand years on the Indian subcontinent, and one that’s very closely related to the Classical Tamil found on inscriptions from as early as around 300 BCE. It’s considered one of the longest-surviving classical languages of all time and is still very much alive and thriving. The language is spoken today by about 75 million people who reside mostly in India, with populations of speakers concentrated in Sri Lanka and Singapore and scattered throughout Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia and South Africa.

Sanskrit

Tamil might be old, but it’s nowhere near as old as Sanskrit, the Indo-Aryan language that served a long term as the lingua franca of ancient and medieval India (when it was mostly used by scholars and nobility). It’s also considered one of the oldest languages of the Indo-European family, as it has notable, if not remarkable, similarities to many European languages. The earliest known form is Vedic Sanskrit, the variant used in a Hindu scripture called the Rigveda in the mid-to-late 2nd millennium BCE. It’s the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and dominates the texts of all three religions. The tongue is one of India’s 22 official languages and is commonly used in Hindu ceremonies and studied in schools. Despite strong efforts to keep the language alive in practice, Sanskrit is barely spoken by anyone natively today, save for the roughly 15,000 people who speak it as a first language. Technically, this means it isn’t a dead language.

Greek

Sure, Latin is a classical language that didn’t really survive, but that doesn’t mean all the classical languages that coexisted with the birth of Western civilization are forever wiped away. Take the Greek language, which is spoken by roughly 13 million people worldwide, mostly in Greece and Cyprus. The language traces its documented history to around 1500 BCE, when the Mycenaean Greeks are thought to have developed a syllabic script that’s known today as Linear B (and long preceded the Greek alphabet). Ancient Greek was spoken from about the 9th century BCE to the 6th century CE, lasting longer than the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The Koine Greek variant of the language, descended from the Attic Greek spoken earlier in Athens, became the most popular form for centuries around the 4th century BCE and evolved into Medieval, or Byzantine, Greek, which finally developed into today’s Modern Greek after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-1400s. Though today’s spoken Demotic Greek (“of the people”) is noticeably different from Ancient Greek, many scholars agree that it’s still the same language, making Greek undoubtedly one of the world’s longest-surviving languages.

Hebrew

Another notable contender is Hebrew, which is believed to have been spoken by Israelite tribes in Canaan as early as the mid-2nd millennium BCE. Scholars disagree over whether or not Modern Hebrew, commonly called Israeli, is actually an organic evolution of the Semitic ancient Biblical Hebrew, or if it’s an Indo-European language with Yiddish as the substrate “anchor” and ancient Hebrew as the superstrate from which most of the lexicon and morphology are borrowed. Some even think today’s Israeli is a hybrid — based on both ancient Hebrew and Yiddish with elements of other languages like Arabic, English, Russian, German, Judeo-Spanish and Polish. Either way, the language mostly fell out of usage as anything but a religious and liturgical language for centuries, starting before the 4th century CE and lasting up until the emergence of Israel in the 19th century. So though it’s very much alive today, there was a long lapse in the language’s history.

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