By Carrie Carlson
What’s the Oldest Language in the World?
The answer to that question depends on how you look at it. Is that ‘the oldest language still in use’, or ‘the oldest known language’? And if you mean ‘oldest known’, what exactly are you looking for? That could be ‘oldest documented language’, or ‘oldest that we’ve been able to reconstruct’. No matter how you look at it, it’s a complicated, but fascinating question. Some of the oldest languages still in use today include:
But those aren’t necessarily the oldest known languages. A great many languages have come and gone over the course of human history. Perhaps more than we know – or may ever know. Languages are complex and behave more like living organisms than static blocks of rules and sounds. Much of their extended history is shrouded in incomplete information and mystery. Unlike settlements, religious landmarks, and burial sites, languages leave very little behind on their own. When languages die, they fade away, unless someone – either their own speakers, or a dedicated scholar – has put them down in an enduring form. The entirety of what we know about the languages of the distant past rests upon whatever has been preserved in the form of various accounts, including inscriptions, texts, and records, or traces that have been carried through into later languages. If a language doesn’t have a written form and isn’t documented in some form or passed down to new generations, the odds of it fading into oblivion are very high. That makes it difficult for us to know with certainty what the languages of our ancestors looked and sounded like. Even when physical records are available, they don’t generally come with a user manual. With no one around to explain them, newly discovered ancient texts often need to be ‘cracked’, and the language they represent deciphered like a code if it can’t be readily identified. Sometimes that unraveling comes with little or no support from modern languages, making translation a daunting task. Exhaustive comparisons to other historical or living languages must be made in hopes of identifying underlying patterns and assigning a source. But historical languages aren’t often preserved in their entirety, and the resulting gaps must be painstakingly reconstructed.
As far as we currently know, writing first appeared in the Near East at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE. The languages listed below are some of the oldest known, based on surviving texts that document everything from economic records (shipment details, distribution of goods, agreements, etc), personal letters, and inscriptions of ownership or dedication, to accounts of events, stories and myths, religious teachings, prayers, and protective spells. Most of these languages are considered ‘dead’, meaning they are no longer actively spoken by living communities.
Forms of Persian
Afro-Asiatic (Egyptian and Semitic languages)
Indo-European (Anatolian languages and Mycenaean Greek)
When linguists aren’t able to identify a particular writing system, or determine which language it belongs to, it may remain partially or entirely undeciphered. Not every [ancient] language comes with a Rosetta Stone, and not all cultures – either past or present – have been terribly good about recording their own linguistic systems in an organized way. There are still a great many texts, inscriptions, and manuscripts that have defied repeated attempts at interpretation. The existence of the linguistic mysteries listed below gives us important food for thought on how many other languages there may have been in our history that have simply disappeared without a trace. It seems likely that there are versions of the languages above that have gone lost, or other whole languages that were, as far as we currently know, never preserved by any [surviving] written account in the first place.
The following writing systems have been partially deciphered, but are relatively poorly understood.
Meroitic – Derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Tujia – Tujia is a living, but quite ancient language spoken in the People’s Republic of China. It has generally been accepted that Tujia doesn’t have a writing system, but that has been challenged by the discovery of a series of ancient, undeciphered books that may, or may not represent a Tujia script.
Khitan – Once spoken by a society of nomads in Northeast Asia, Khitan is associated with two different scripts, neither of which are fully understood.
Examples of inscriptions and texts that have remained partially, or entirely undeciphered include the following:
Southwest Paleohispanic (Also known as Tartessian or South Lusitanian) – The language this script belongs to is unknown, but it is well-preserved.
The Alekanovo inscription in Russia
The Byblos syllabary, found in Lebanon, Egypt, Italy, and Israel
Rongorongo of the Rapa Nui on Easter Island; A script whose meaning has sadly been forgotten by its own – still living – people.
The Singapore Stone, which may be Sumatran and was unfortunately blown up in 1843 to clear space for a fort.
The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions, which represent the earliest known phonetic alphabet.
The Sitovo inscription; A curious inscription found inside a rock shelter in Bulgaria.
Olmec writing (could be the oldest writing within the Western Hemisphere)
The Indus Valley scripts (Also referred to as Harappan)
Proto-Elamite script and Linear Elamite – A great example of what happens when language systems aren’t kept track of in an organized way.
Cretan hieroglyphs of, well, Crete.
Linear A, which encodes a possible Minoan language.
The Cypro-Minoan syllabary
Interpreting any of these samples and manuscripts could shift our understanding of the family tree of human languages, or even add whole new branches, but what about the languages that came before writing systems became prevalent? The languages listed above, and those we speak today didn’t just spring fully-formed from a dream. Where did they come from? This is where proto-languages come in. Proto-languages are the reconstructed ancestors of the world’s language groups. If you think of the range of human languages as a family tree, these would be the languages closest to, or making up the first branches, trunk, and roots. These languages are generally largely theoretical, as precious little has survived of them in terms of hard records like inscriptions. They’ve been, or are currently being, meticulously reconstructed through entire lifetimes-worth of research, comparison, cross-referencing, and painstaking linguistic inductive reasoning. The list of recognized proto-languages is far too long to reproduce here, but they exist for every known human language group worldwide.
It’s impossible to know for sure where our languages will go from here, or what sorts of discoveries remain to be made. What we can be certain of, is that change is inevitable. No language is entirely static, and it’s impossible to keep them from influencing one another as globalization and technology bring us ever closer together. But we ought to treasure our linguistic heritage and celebrate its diversity.