8 Ancient Languages Still Spoken Today

What Are the Oldest Living Languages?

Why is this Difficult to Answer?

Languages evolve just like living organisms. Across generations, over hundreds of years, and between different groups of people, they have experienced constant, little changes that branch out over the course of history to produce the complicated web we have today. It is hard to look at two languages and claim one is older than the other, because except in the rarest of cases, a language spoken today is incomparable to that same version of the language spoken a few centuries ago. History, culture, politics, religion, and a host of other factors are reasons why the ancient ancestor to the language we speak today goes by the same name.

While it is difficult to allege that one language is actually older than another, as all languages branch from the same basic languages, tens of thousands of years ago. And as languages form gradually, the easiest way to gauge the birth of a language is by the first written record. However, different cultures developed written languages at uneven paces. A language might have been spoken for several thousand years or just a couple hundred before it was written down for the first time. This makes true estimates of the age of distinct languages and dialects difficult.

Brief History of Language

Scientists have used numerous theories about the evolution of speech, language, and writing to guess when humans first began to communicate with each other. The standard estimate is that we first interacted in distinct speech patterns about 100,000 years ago. Some say this was through imitating animal noises and others say through interjections and exclamations caused by feelings and emotions.

Written language, scientists estimate, didn’t emerge until around 10,000 years ago, in the form of images, pictures, or symbols that carried meaning across groups of people. Unique alphabets began to form around 5,000 years ago with the ancient Sumerians and their cuneiform language and the ancient Egyptians and their hieroglyphics. While both of these languages are now extinct, many classical languages that emerged or emerged in written form in the following centuries are what we consider the oldest living languages: languages that have remain mostly unchanged for the longest amount of time with ongoing use as a means of communication.

What are the Oldest Living Languages?

1.      Tamil | தமிழ்

Tamil has a recorded literary history spanning over 2000 years. While many languages were still working through various stages of development and presenting early forms of alphabets and writing, ancient Tamil authors were writing books about proper Tamil grammar and syntax, including a collection of more than 2,000 Tamil poems dates back to the 1st century BCE. Its ancestor, a theoretical language that gave birth to a group of languages in South Asia, formed definitively around 3000 BCE, and Tamil emerged as a spoken language sometime between then and its first written records.

Today, Tamil has around 70 million native speakers living in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. It is sometimes described as a great surviving classical literary tradition and the oldest language still spoken in India.

2.      Greek | ελληνικά

Greek is contested as the oldest language, with an estimated spoken tradition lasting until about 3000 BCE. Its first written record was discovered in the form of a Linear B clay tablet dating to about 1450 to 1350 BCE in the Balkan peninsula. While this Greek is unintelligible compared to the Greek spoken today, a straight line can trace the various historic versions of the language emerge and fade.

About 13 million people speak Greek as a native language today in Greece and Cyprus. While it was an historic lingua franca of the Mediterranean, anymore its speakers reside in small minority communities outside of Greece and Cyprus itself.

Mycenaean Greek Linear B Clay Tablet c.14540-1350 BCE – Source

3.      Chinese | 中文

Chinese is another language whose spoken history most likely far exceeds its first written record. The first collections of written Chinese characters began to show up around 1100 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty on bronze artifacts and pieces of bone. Linguists have also traced the usage of Chinese words in nearby languages like Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese to estimate the age and development of the Chinese language.

But many experts believe Chinese as a spoken language extends back as far as 5000 – 3000 BCE, with the Yangshao culture around the Yellow River in northern China. Artifacts unearthed from this period show markings and shapes that many interpret to be the origins of Classical Chinese. Today, (Mandarin) Chinese is natively spoken by more than 1.2 billion people around the world.

Ancient Chinese Oracle Bone Inscriptions – Source

4.      Persian | فارسی

While the spoken origins of Persian are obscure, written Persian began to appear in the Achaemenid empire around 400 BCE. Estimates of when Persian first began to form typically go as far back as 1500 BCE with the development of the Proto-Iranian language. The oldest Persian writing is the Behistun Inscription, a rock carving on the side of a cliff near Kermanshah in Iran. It dates back to sometime between the crowning of Darius the Great in 522 and his death in 486 BCE.

Persian evolved into three modern dialects of the language: Farsi in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan, and Tajik in Tajikistan. While it is rare that languages go for centuries without changing in grammar, syntax, or vocabulary, many say Persian is an exception because the average Farsi speaker can pick up a text from the 9th century and read it with greater ease than an English speaker could read Shakespeare. There are currently more than 100 million native speakers of all dialects of Persian.

Behistun Inscription Near Kermanshah in Western Iran – Source

5.      Arabic | عربى

The development of Arabic as a standardized language took more than a millennium from the first discovered inscriptions in the 9th century BCE to the 7th century CE. The numerous dialects and languages spoken in the Arabian Peninsula began to slowly merge and form Old Arabic. The earliest written records of Arabic are names that were found in Yemen. Arabic today is spoken in numerous different dialects with a combined total of around 300 million native speakers.

Another notable language from the same language family is Berber, which has ancient roots in North Africa and the Middle East but with much less concrete of a written history than Arabic. Some linguists estimate Berber began to break off from the precursor to Arabic as early as the 8th millennium BCE and became fully distinct around 1000 BCE.

6.      Hebrew | עִברִית

Hebrew is an interesting case. While the language emerged in writing along with ancient Judaic texts, it essentially went the way of Latin around the 4th century CE. Like Latin for Roman Catholic Christians, Hebrew was almost exclusively a liturgical language, meaning mostly Jewish rabbis used the language for religious ceremonies. With the rise of Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE and the migration of Jews to Israel, Hebrew again took hold and a renaissance occurred.

Hebrew spread throughout the Kingdom of Israel and Judah between 1200 and 586 BCE, and the earliest examples of Hebrew (or maybe Proto Hebrew) writing date back to around 2000 BCE. Today there are almost 10 million Hebrew speakers around the world, mostly focused in Israel and the United States.

Hebrew Inscription in Kursi near Sea of Galilee – Source

7.      Lithuanian |Lietuviškai)

Although Lithuanian didn’t technically emerge as a written language until 1500 CE, millennia after the other languages on this list, many linguists think it might be one of the oldest languages in Europe. It is possibly the most “conservative” Indo-European language, which means it more closely resembles what scientists estimate the oldest languages of Europe look like. It shares numerous characteristics with ancient languages like Sanskrit and Ancient Greek.

Lithuanian is one of the two living Baltic languages along with Latvian, and it is spoken by around 3 million people in Lithuania and Poland.


8.      Basque | Euskara

Basque is another mysterious example of languages thought to be ancient without the written proof to back it up. It is a “language isolate,” or a language that has very few or no similarities with languages it is geographically close to. Basque is surrounded by Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, yet is in an entirely different form. Linguists estimate that it is the last remaining descendant of the languages spoken on the European continent before the Indo-Europeans migrated there. This would have been around the 19th century BCE.

Basque has less than a million native speakers living in France and Spain, and in the centuries since Latin and then the Romance languages took ahold of Europe, Basque has succeeded in implanting some of its own vocabulary in nearby languages as well as assuming some words from elsewhere.

Basing the age of languages on written records is a difficult way to estimate the age of a language. But with the evolution of these tongues buried in history, we only have so many tools that we can use to guess how the almost 7,000 living languages came to be.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you think of a language that we missed or want to share the ancient history of one of your favorite languages, let us know in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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