What Is The Oldest Language?
By oldest, I mean out of the thousands of languages spoken around the world today, which
one has been spoken for the longest time?
This is a minefield of a topic and most linguists I talked to do not want to touch this subject
with a ten-foot pole, for a lot of reasons.
Foremost because it's a massive waste of time.
But fret not, I'm no linguist.
And I have no shame rising to the top of the badlinguistics subreddit which I have a feeling
is going to happen anyway.
So since there are way too many complications to answering this problem and because languages
have been around for way too long of a time, even beyond the dawn of civilisations, it
is never going to be easy to answer.
Unless you have a time machine it will all come down to your criteria and personal opinion.
It's safe to say that languages change all the time, if you think about it, the language
you spoke 10 years ago is probably not the language speak today, this question assumes
a certain continuity to a language.
So looking for the natural language that is spoken in its exact form for the longest time,
it would be a pointless exercise.
Furthermore, if you accept the out of 'Africa theory' that all humans moved out of the east
African Savannah you could certainly argue that all existing languages could be traced
back to these ancestral forms.
But that's not what we are after, as we are interested in the modern forms of these languages.
So this is actually one of the bigger complications of answering this question, we assume that
if you trace back a language long enough you could draw a line and say that at this point,
this language is not intelligible and at this point it becomes the modern version of that
language that we now understand.
But it is not that simple.
Let's take English as an example for convenience's sake.
Before the current versions of modern English, we have what is called as Middle English which
roughly follows the late middle ages until the invention of the printing press in the
late 15th century.
Modern English starts its formation since then with a lot of changes in pronunciation
To most of us, Middle English is unintelligible without any training.
Listen to this clip of MIT professor Arthur Bahr reading a short excerpt of Sir Gawayne
and the Green Knight in
Middle English& . English becomes much more intelligible to us when Shakespeare comes
around 200years later from that reading.
And as I mentioned before The Gutenberg printer
has a lot to do with that.
So although where these lines are about intelligibility are quite subjective, by and large, we can
categorise languages to certain periods and sub-periods according to their changes and
So this is why you also see old English or late-medieval English as periods or sub-periods
So if you had a hope that English was in the running for the oldest surviving language
you're going to be sorely disappointed.
Let's look at Latin for a contrast.
Originating in the area known as Latium around central Italy which is where Rome and the
Roman Empire would grow to be, Latin had a lot of influence on the growth and the spread
of western civilisation.
This is one of the reasons why it is known to be a Classical language.
But you probably also heard that Latin is a dead language.
Now, what makes Latin 'dead' and English alive is its active native speakers and its usage
in day to day life.
Latin, as far as we know is not used in day to day context by the average citizens of
But the Vatican City could be thought as an exception.
But not because Latin is the lingua franca of the state.
Due to practicality Italian is actually used as the official language of the Vatican City
The prominence of Latin in the Holy See is because Latin is also a 'sacred language'
also known as a liturgical language, a sacred language is a language used in religious contexts
explaining the prime reason why it survived through the ages despite falling out of favour
as a communal language.
The same could be said about the ancient Pali language of India which perhaps has been around
for longer, at least since the time of Gautama Siddhartha also known as Buddha who lived
around 26th Century BCE but has been kept alive by Buddhist monks keeping the teachings
of Buddha up to this day.
What should be noted here is that a dead language is different to an extinct language.
And it's an important distinction.
It is a language that is no longer in use today.
It is a language that nobody effectively speaks anymore.
Like this Siouan (Su-an) language Mandan that went extinct with its last Native American
speaker Dr Edwin Benson's demise in 2016.
Or the Badeshi, a language only spoken by these three men in the foothills of a remote
mountain Valley in the Gilgit Balistan region in Pakistan.
As you would have guessed, Badeshi will become a dead language after these three speakers
of the language as in each example there won't be any active speakers or written usage of
the language making it 'extinct' as oppose to a 'dead language'.
So many think that this is also the case with the language of Sanskrit.
There are many parallels that could be drawn between Sanskrit and Latin.
First of all, Sanskrit is also one of the important liturgical languages, mainly to
It was also the language of the upper class and had great influence over most of the current
South Asian languages and even as far as South East Asian Languages.
Arguably Sanskrit kicked off the whole study of linguistic history.
And it holds a very important place in the study of Indo-European studies as the body
of Sanskrit literature is one of the richest due to its usage in many Vedic and philosophical
texts as well as poetry and drama in the ancient Indian literature.
So the ancient Vedic Sanskrit could be placed between 18th- 12th Century BC.
The most important aspect of Sanskrit is its methods of memorization, exceptional complexity,
rigour, and fidelity of grammar laid out by the ancient philologist and scholar Pāṇini,
somewhere between the 6th and 2th century BC.
Pāṇini's work still forms the basis for many modern linguistic theories and his work on
morphology is compared to the work of Turing's machine in the 20th century, due to its complexity
So if we go by the -earlier- Pāṇini's treatise which is a significant turning point for classical
Sanskrit, we can put Sanskrit at around the 6th century BC on the spectrum.
Now of course the so called 'common period' of Sanskrit albeit being slightly different,
does not change much due to the rigorous work by Pāṇini.
Which is only a little help to answering our question.
But this is where things get a bit interesting, or complicated.
If Sanskrit is a dead language, why am I wasting your time with it right?
The problem is Sanskrit is sort of making a comeback.
In the 2011 national census of Nepal, 1,669 people reported that they use Sanskrit as
their first language.
Sanskrit has been declared as one of the official languages in the state of Uttarakhand in India
and it has been seeing a resurgence in speakers due to religious and nationalistic movements.
And the Indian national census reported 14135 Sanskrit speakers of Sanskrit in the country
and the numbers are steadily growing.
Which arguably put Sanskrit in the running for this title, and that is of course if you
disregard the hiatus in the middle.
That brings us to another important sacred and classical language with a similar story;
which is Hebrew.
Hebrew also completed a full revival as Sanskrit is currently undergoing today.
It is well and alive today within the Jewish communities and in the state of Israel.
Hebrew, fell out of favour and became a dead language after the medieval period and was
was kept alive by the rabbis and academic pursuants.
However, Hebrew was revived as the Zionist movement picked up steam in the 19th century
and finally went on to become the official state language of Israel in 1948.
However, if you only studied biblical Hebrew, you would remain almost unintelligible to
an Israeli today just as in the case of English and old English due to a many natural changes
happened to the lexicons of Jewish people living in different parts of the world, and
having picked up a lot of borrowed words from other languages and many of the words have been evolved
having evolved from its ancestral version that is based on the biblical Hebrew.
Although it should be noted that there are some who argue that these two essentially
are the same language.
Even if we agree with these arguments biblical Hebrew does not come into the play around,
well, the Bible.
But the oldest available scripts of Hebrew dates to the 10th century BC.
But the few linguists I spoke to and many on Quora seem to agree that the two versions
have drifted too far to be intelligible without any training.
Also, biblical Hebrew texts don't have the same luxury of an intense grammatical treatise
that Sanskrit enjoyed, which in this (Hebrew) case, rules being steadily established over time.
Okay, now that we are across that minefield, let's move on.The other main contenders for
the running that we usually encounter are Chinese, Persian, Coptic, Greek and Tamil.
Out of these, Coptic language or the ancient Egyptian language is much older than any of
the other languages and is been used in the same way as Latin is been used as a religious
language, but only by a handful of people.
Coptic could be traced back as far as 3000-5000years in recorded history but it is no longer used
as a native or first language.
And obviously had transformed into a completely different language.
The survival of the language through the ages, however, is very remarkable.
Modern Chinese Dialects, Iranian and Greek although are very old and continuous, are
significantly different from their ancestral forms to their modern versions.
For example, Mycenaean Greek, which is the oldest of the three languages, dates back
to around 17th Century BCE.
And actually, the oldest written text of any surviving language belongs to Greek, dating
back to 15th Century BCE, written using a writing system known as 'Linear B' predating
the Modern Greek alphabet.
So obviously, for some linguists and even some of you viewers, therefore choosing Greek as the
oldest language might make the most sense.
As some people would argue that using the oldest known written text as the criteria
would make more sense than pursuing something as intangible as intelligibility.
Going by that rule no other language even comes close to Greek with Pali-Prakrit texts
appearing in Buddhist Asoka Pillars in the 3rd century BC, Dravidian literature and the
dead Sea Scrolls roughly around the same time.
This brings us to the last language in this list, which is Tamil.
The case with Tamil is also unsurprisingly a bit murky.
But no less interesting.
Tamil is a Dravidian language of the Indian Sub-continent.
Unlike Sanskrit which was developed by the migrating Indo-Europeans, Dravidians were
the indigenous peoples of the sub-continent.
If you looked up this question online on forums there's a heated debate among people about
Tamil being the oldest continuous language.
Since you already have a much better grasp on the context and criteria of the other languages
we spoke about, let's look at Tamil from the same lenses.
Tamil is a living language, there is no doubt about that, it is one of the official languages
of Singapore & Sri Lanka and some Southern States of India, respectively.
Also there are more than 70million native speakers around the world with many dialects.
The ancient Tamil literature known as Sangam literature can be traced back to about 3rd
But this is where things start to become debatable.
First of all Dravidian Languages being indigenous to the sub-continent are definitely older
Although all other languages we discussed are probably older than what's mentioned,
Tamil throws in one more complication.
One of the cradles of human civilisation the Indus Valley civilisation is often argued
to be a Dravidian society.
Indus Valley civilisation can be traced back to at least 3300BCE.
Now, this is where all the arguments centre around.
Tamil being a Dravidian language, perhaps could be continuously traced back to this
time, if in fact, the Indus valley civilisation was definitely Dravidian.
To which there is some strong evidence.
But the problems we explored with Middle English and Modern English does not exclude the Tamil
In fact, many of the Southern Indian Languages such as Malayalam also evolved from the same
And sure enough, the Sangam literature will not be mutually intelligible to an average
Tamil speaker today.
The language has also gone through a lot of Sanskritisation borrowing vocabulary, grammar
and literary styles from Sanskrit, although resisting it more than other languages in
So I wish if there was a straightforward answer to this question.
But the simple fact is there isn't.
And I should warn my viewers and accept the fact that most of the information I've given
here are debated by academics...
So this video might not stand up to scrutiny in the future.
And I'm sure there are probably errors I made and things I missed.
Please note them down with any other information you want to add on the comment section and
let me and others know.
I'll see ya next time.