Languages are considered the medium of communication between humans, and there are still languages that are extinct with time and those that are still spoken and kept alive by humans. These 10 oldest languages in the world are still in use today. However, more than one million people speak only 200 of these languages.
The oldest languages in the world are the closest to what we first spoke around two million years ago. It was only 50,000 years ago that humans developed the most basic of spoken language and 6,000 years ago that they learned to write. Today, there are more than 7,000 living languages spoken across the globe, with many of the oldest languages being survivors despite colonization, wars, famine, and globalization. However, there is a record number of over 900 languages that are dying, having less than 1, 000 speakers remaining. Also, 50% of the world’s population is covered by 23 major languages.
Many of these languages evolved and sprung from previous languages, some of which are extinct. Also, a significant number of the languages spoken today are a few centuries old. For instance, modern English is among the youngest languages at only five centuries old.
Now, it is time to explore the top 10 oldest languages in the world…
How Some of the Oldest Languages in the World Disappeared
There are a number of reasons why some of the oldest languages disappeared and are no longer being spoken today.
- Top on the list of the reasons is conquest. The Roman Empire was at its strongest when local languages were eradicated, leaving Latin to spread rapidly and become the lingua franca for many nations.
- Bilinguals, such as international students, are also contributing to the loss of their mother tongues. When a language is isolated or used very little, it faces the possibility of fading away.
- No or lack of written records or oral traditions to preserve or revive a language.
How Many Languages are there in the World?
There are 7,168 living languages in the world today.
Most Widely Spoken Language in the World
English is the most spoken language with 1.5 billion speakers. This number comprises both native and non-native speakers. However, in terms of native speakers only, Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language today, with 920 million native speakers.
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What Was the First Language on Earth?
Current research suggests that language has been a fundamental part of the human experience for thousands of generations and that it continues to evolve and adapt to our changing world. The first spoken language was likely simple, consisting of basic sounds and gestures used to communicate basic survival needs. According to history, the first spoken language appeared 10,000 years ago. Over time, these early languages evolved and diversified as human societies grew more complex and began to engage in trade, agriculture, and other activities.
10 Oldest Languages in the World That are Still Spoken
10. Italian (2,100 years old)
Italian is the most direct modern descendant of Latin, as it is the language of Rome and descended directly from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire through Italy in the Middle Ages. It has 67 million native speakers in the EU and beyond, and many more choose to learn it for its beauty.
It is an official language in San Marino, Italy, and Switzerland and is spoken in 13 other countries. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the language’s first developments began forming from a variety of regional dialects, including the Tuscan dialect.
The language continued undergoing standardization and codification until the unified national language for the newly formed Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861. Today, 67 million people worldwide speak Italian as their mother tongue.
9. Tamil (5,000 years old)
Tamil is the official language of Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. It originated in India and has evolved over time. It is believed to have originated from Proto-Dravidian, which was in use in the fourth millennium.
Also, the language has a long and storied history, having emerged in 3000 BC, and is still spoken in some areas around the Indian subcontinent.
The UN declared it a classical language in 2004 based on its original literary tradition, rich and ancient text, and antiquity. The word Tamil means natural, sweet, and beautiful, and is personified as a god known as Tamil Thai. There are currently 75 million native speakers of the language.
8. Sanskrit (3500 years)
Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world that is still being spoken to date. It is an Indo-Aryan language that emerged around 1500 BC and is still used in some religious ceremonies and texts in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Its oldest texts date back to around 1500 BCE. It is largely used in religious texts and ceremonies, but is also used by bureaucratic institutions in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and other parts of South and Southeast Asia.
7. Greek (3450 years old)
Greek is one of the few ancient languages that still exist today. It emerged in the Balkans and was likely spoken before 1450 BC. The earliest evidence of the existence of Greek during ancient times was on a clay tablet found in Messenia.
Scholars have shown that Greek has evolved, with the earliest version being Proto-Greek, which was never written down but evolved into all the known Greek versions. Modern Greek, also called Neo-Hellenic Greek, emerged during the Byzantine era sometime during the 11th century.
Modern Greek is spoken by 13.5 million people around the world and is used in business, education, and government policies. Even if you don’t speak Greek, you’ve probably used words that originated from it.
6. Farsi (2520 years old)
Persian is an Indo-European language that originated in Iran and is still spoken in neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is rich in literary works and is spoken by a significant minority in Uzbekistan and by diaspora communities throughout Israel, Australia, North America, and Europe. An estimated 110 million people globally speak Farsi.
The ancestor of Farsi or Persian is Old Persian, a language first attested in the inscriptions of Darius I who ruled between 522 and 486 BC. The Behistun Inscription is a multilingual inscription that was crucial to the decipherment of cuneiform script. The language originated in Iran and is still the official language there.
5. Hebrews (3,000 years old)
Hebrew is an ancient Semitic language with roots that date back to biblical times. It was primarily used for religious texts, correspondence, and communications between Jewish people from around the second century CE onwards. It was revived as a spoken language by activists in the 19th century, starting in Germany.
Today, there are over nine million speakers of modern Hebrew, about five million of whom speak it as their first language. It is the official language of Israel and is taught and spoken by the majority of people living there. It has found a place among scholars and academics as an important language for studying ancient texts and religious scriptures.
4. Chinese (4000 years)
Chinese is one of the oldest spoken languages in the world, dating back to 1250 BCE. It has many dialects and is one of the widely spoken languages in the world today, with 1.1 billion speakers. Mandarin and Cantonese are the main languages in China today, but these languages are relatively recent.
Its oldest writing has been sighted on animal bones, known as oracle bones, that date back to the Shang dynasty. The standard spoken form of Chinese, known as Mandarin or Putonghua, is spoken in the northern, central, and southwestern provinces of China and is also spoken by 1.4 billion speakers who use it as their mother tongue.
It’s rich history and widespread usage have made significant contributions to the world today, including through literature, calligraphy, and other visual arts.
3. Aramaic (3,100 years old)
The Aramaic language dates back to 1100 BC and has Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects. It strongly influences Farsi and is spoken in Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Western nations like the US, Australia, Europe, and Russia.
There are 25 countries that have Arabic as an official or co-official language, with 335 million speakers. Old Arabic is the ancestor of the Arabic language, and its earliest inscription is a prayer to the three gods of the Transjordanian Canaanite kingdoms.
Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world, with 270 million native speakers. It is the official language of 26 states and the liturgical language of Islam. The language originated on the Arabian Peninsula and has spread over the Middle East and North Africa. It is one of the oldest languages in existence, having been spoken by Armenians in ancient Syria in 1100 BC.
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2. Sumerian (6,000 years old)
The Sumerian language emerged approximately in 3200 BC and is the oldest written language. It was written in cuneiforms, which comprised wedge-shaped symbols made by making an impression on soft clay tablets using a sharpened reed stylus. Archeologists found some tablets dating back to the fourth millennium with inscriptions of teaching materials and administrative records.
Sumerian died off as a spoken language sometime in 2000 BC, but the Assyro-Babylonians continued using it as a written language for close to a millennium after they stopped speaking it. The Sumerians left behind extensive written records on clay tablets, providing valuable insights into their culture, history, and language.
One such clay tablet found was packed with information, with six professionally written lines of cuneiform script on it. The language is not spoken extensively now, but is still studied by scholars and used for religious ceremonies.
1. Egyptian (4,700 years old)
Africa has repeatedly been christened as the cradle of humankind. so, it is unsurprising that one of the oldest languages originated in Africa and is still spoken today since over 4700 years ago!
Ancient Egyptian was the oldest language in the world, dating back to 2690 BCE. Autobiographical writings and proto-language hieroglyphs were found in tombs 600 years before complete texts arrived. Hieratic and hieroglyphic were the writing systems used in Old, Middle, and Late Egypt.
In the seventh century BC, demotic appeared. The Greek letter served as the basis for the Coptic script, which was created during the Ptolemaic era and gradually superseded the Demotic script. Hieroglyphics from 396 CE were found on a post from a temple gate in Philae.
The language descended from Ancient Egyptian. It is primarily used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the Coptic Catholic Church. More than 56 million people speak Egyptian today.
Exploring ancient languages deepens our understanding of our journey on Earth and the diverse methods we have found to express our thoughts. Preserving endangered languages is important for cultural preservation and identity, offering insight into linguistics and cognitive science. It also preserves ancient technology, environmental relationships, and philosophical ideologies.