Before civilizations were formed and human life evolved to become what we know today, people communicated using gestures and grunts. When people hear this, they often ask questions like what is the oldest language or when was the first language spoken. This interest is understandable among translation services professionals and other individuals.. There’s a lot of debate about which language came first and when it originated. However, ancient texts and carvings give us some ideas.
Egyptian is one of the oldest known languages. Egyptian Coptic dates back to 3400 BC, making it an ancient language. Coptic was widely spoken until the late 17th century when it was replaced by Egyptian Arabic. While it remains the liturgical language of the Coptic Church, only a few people can speak the language fluently today.
The earliest written Tamil texts date back to 300 BC but scientists believe that it may have appeared for the first time around 2500 BC. Tamil is an ancient language of India and it remains an official language of India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. It is the only ancient language that continues to be spoken today with 78 million people continuing to use it.
But is Tamil older than Sanskrit? It doesn’t appear so. How old is Sanskrit? The earliest Sanskrit texts – a collection of hymns – date back to around 2000 BC. This makes it one of the oldest languages. Unlike Tamil, Sanskrit fell out of common use. However, it remains one of India’s official languages and is found in holy books of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Though not widely spoken today, it forms the base for many European languages.
Hebrew is another of the oldest spoken languages in the world. It was spoken by the Israelites, Judeans, and Samaritans. It went out of common usage around 400 AD but remains a liturgical language for Jews. Hebrew also became the official language of Israel when it was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries with the rise of Zionism. Modern Hebrew is different from that of the Bible and is influenced by Yiddish, Arabic, English and several other European languages.
Greek is thought of as the oldest written language in the world or at least one of the oldest. It has been written for more than 3000 years and was first spoken in Greece and Asia Minor. Greek has a longer uninterrupted written history than any current Indo-European language.
Farsi is a commonly spoken language in modern Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. It evolved from the Old Persian language which was the Persian Empire’s official language. The modern Persian language emerged around 800 AD, and it has only changed slightly since then.
Chinese is another of the oldest known languages. Its characters date back about 3,000 years with hieroglyphs being traced back to the Shang Dynasty between the 16 and 11th century BC. The written language was simplified in 1956. Around 1.2 billion people speak Chinese and the language has many dialects.
Arabic is the language in which the Quran is written and is the origin of some familiar English words including sugar and alcohol. Arabic has been around since the first to fourth centuries. During the early part of the Middle Ages, this language was a major driver of culture in the Mediterranean region. Today, it is spoken by around 260 million people and has numerous dialects.
Sumerian is one of the oldest languages. It was developed around the fourth millennium BC and was spoken in Mesopotamia until around 2000 BC. It was later replaced by Akkadian in common usage but continued to be used as a ceremonial and scientific language in Mesopotamia until around 1 AD. The language went through somewhat of a revival in the 19th century.
Latin is one another of the oldest known languages. The first scriptures were written around 75 BC. For many centuries thereafter Latin was considered as the language of educated people. As the old Latin alphabet had its origin in the Etruscan alphabet, at the beginning, it was written from right to left. However, the script evolved to be read from left to right.
Debate Continues as to What is the Oldest Language in the World
More than 6,000 languages are spoken around the world today. Assuming that all of today’s spoken languages originated from one language and analyzing the rate at which dialects evolve and words mutate, calculations show that it would have taken more than 100,000 years for a single language to have diversified that much. Because of this, it is believed that the first language was spoken in the middle of the Stone Age with the emergence of Homo sapiens. However, it’s also possible that earlier human species such as Homo heidelbergensis or Homo habilis had language systems.
If language evolved prior to the human migration from Africa all the languages spoken today may well have emerged from a single language. Still, there’s no way to know if there were older languages used at the time of migration that are no longer around. The topic will no doubt occupy scholars for some time.