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 want to know the oldest known language, what are you looking for? The ‘oldest language with documentation’, 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 languages.
Many languages have come and gone throughout 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. Incomplete information and mystery shroud much of their extended history. Unlike settlements, religious landmarks, and burial sites, languages leave little behind on their own. When languages die, they fade unless someone (speakers or a dedicated scholar) puts them down in an enduring form. All we know about past languages rests upon preservation which can be inscriptions, texts, or even what remains in later languages.
The odds of a language fading into oblivion are high if there is not a text form, documentation, nor anything passed down to later generations. That makes it difficult to know with certainty what the languages of our ancestors looked and sounded like. Even when 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. When that unraveling comes with no support from modern languages, translation is daunting. To identify underlying patterns and assign a source, one must make exhaustive comparisons to other historical or living languages. Preservation of historical languages in their entirety is crucial. Otherwise, reconstructed the resulting gaps is necessary.
The first appearances of writing were in the Near East at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE. The oldest known languages are based on surviving texts that document everything from economic records (shipment details, distribution of goods, agreements), 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 ‘dead,’ meaning living communities do not actively speak them.
Some of the oldest known languages:
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 undeciphered. Not every [ancient] language comes with a Rosetta Stone, and not all cultures – past or present – have been good about recording their own linguistic systems in an organized way. There are still 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.
MeroiticDerived 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 people (who are still living.)
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 tracked 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. 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. We ought to treasure our linguistic heritage and celebrate its diversity.