If language distinguishes humans from apes, then the oldest languages in the world are the closest to what we first spoke around two million years ago when humans started to stand upright, their brains grew gigantic, and their hands more nimble.
This was a key milestone in how humans evolved away from apes.
But the oldest languages in the world did not originate anywhere immediately when this happened.
It was only 50,000 years ago that humans developed the most basic of a spoken language — fossils of human jaws suggest these early humans were probably only making the sounds of long “a”s.
And it was only 6,000 years ago that scholars say humans learned to write.
Today, there are more than 7,000 living languages spoken across the globe — with many of the oldest languages in the world among them.
They are survivors. Despite colonisation, wars, famine and globalisation, they are still used in some way or form today. Some are even thriving.
However, there is a record number of over 900 languages that are dying. How were they killed? Can we save them from going the way of the dodo, West African black rhino and Javan tiger?
How the oldest languages in the world disappeared
Some languages that are dead and no longer spoken are:
- Coptic (of the Egyptian Christians)
- Ancient Greek
- Biblical Hebrew
- Old Norse
They died for many reasons — chief among them is conquest. When the Roman empire was at its strongest, local languages were eradicated completely, leaving Latin to spread rapidly throughout the empire and became the lingua franca for many nations.
For thousands of years, the ancient language of religion, law and the secrets of life flourished.
It was so prominent that it eventually influenced Western languages across Europe like French, Spanish and Portuguese.
In the ceremonies of Mass back then, priests would say “Hoc est corpus!” – which is Latin for “This is the body [of Chris!”. Peasants — who were illiterate and didn’t speak Latin — heard “hocus pocus!” the term used whenever someone’s conjuring tricks today.
Another reason languages wither away is thanks to people like many international students are: bilinguals.
As we use another language, like English, for school, work and to watch Netflix, our mother tongues are gradually lost to unuse.
When a certain language became isolated or was used very little, it faces the possibility of fading away.
Other factors that led to the death of languages include:
- No or lack of written records or oral traditions to preserve or revive a language
- When humans created the first printers in 1476, this changed the way languages are spoken and words are spelt
- As more people moved abroad, particularly children, their mother tongue was not passed down by older generations
If we are not careful, linguists believe that 90% of languages will become obsolete by the next century.
In fact, one language falls out of use every two weeks — with regions like Northern Australia, Central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, Eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the southwestern US suffering the most.
The reason? All had indigenous people speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.
Survival of the fittest: 10 oldest languages in the world
1. Chinese (6,000 years old)
The Chinese language is the oldest written language in the world.
Its oldest writing has been sighted on animal bones, known as oracle bones, that date back to the Shang dynasty. This means it was some 3,600 years ago when the written language was first used.
The standard spoken form of Chinese, known as Mandarin or Putonghua, is spoken in the northern, central and southwestern provinces of China.
It 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: Ancient classics from Confucius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi offer profound insights into ethics, governance, and human nature.
- Calligraphy: It is considered a visual art and a good skill to have.
The aesthetic beauty of Chinese characters, expressed through brush strokes and ink, has influenced art and design everywhere.
2. Sanskrit (4,000 years old)
Another one of the oldest languages in the world is Sanskrit.
An ancient Indo-Aryan language, Sanskrit is widely used in Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism — its effects are seen in poetry, drama, and sciences, as well as religious and philosophical texts.
Sacred texts like the “Mahabharata” (of which the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita is part of) and “Ramayana” were all written in Sanskrit.
The “Upanishad” is another great example of the influence Sanksrit has on the ancient linguistic landscape.
This philosophical work contains religious texts of Hinduism which explains the foundations of the religion.
The work, which explores profound spiritual concepts, has greatly influenced Indian thought and continues to be studied and interpreted to this day.
That is not all. Sanskrit’s contribution extends far beyond just the literary or linguistic realms.
For example, the “Sulbasutras” contain geometric and algebraic principles that have contributed to the advancement of mathematical knowledge.
The Sulbasutras were appendices to the Vedas (a large collection of religious text), which gave specific rules and measurements on how to construct an altar.
3. Egyptian (4,000 years old)
The Egyptian language, specifically Ancient Egyptian, originated in the Nile Valley of Northeastern Africa and has had connections to Semitic languages.
The language underwent many variations — Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian until its last phase, the Coptic alphabet.
As the language evolved, it became more widely spoken by the common man as well as the elite for various reasons, including religious ceremonies, legal proceedings, and literature.
The hieroglyphic script, which was used to write the Egyptian language, adorned the walls of temples and tombs, providing insights into religious beliefs, historical events, and daily life in ancient Egypt.
Today, the Egyptian language spoken is Egyptian Arabic.
Ancient artifacts, mummified animals, and scrolls are still being studied carefully today.
4. Sumerian (3,200 years old)
Sumerian is among the earliest languages for which written evidence exists. It was written in the cuneiform script.
Known to be the greatest contribution from the Sumerian people, cuneiform is a way of writing distinct from the alphabet.
It uses between 600 and 1,000 characters impressed on clay to spell words by dividing them up into syllables.
Now Sumerian was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) but suffered a decline, with many saying a drought killed off the language with many of its people.
However, 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, says Professor Nicholas Postgate, a Senior Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge.
“The language is Sumerian, the oldest written language, and there are six professionally written lines of cuneiform script on it,” Postgate says.
The language is not spoken extensively now but is still studied by scholars and used for religious ceremonies.
5. Hebrew (3,000 years old)
Hebrew is an ancient Semitic language with roots that date back to biblical times — making it one of the oldest languages in the world.
Historically used by the early Jews for religious purposes, the language was almost completely lost during the Holocaust but experienced a revival in the late 19th century.
Modern Hebrew is now the official language of Israel, and it is taught and spoken by the majority of people living there.
Beyond Israel, the language is spoken widely across the world due to centuries of Jewish migration and diaspora.
It has found a place among scholars and academics as an important language for studying ancient texts and religious scriptures too — thanks to its unique alphabet and grammatical structure.
6. Greek (3,000 years old)
Spanning over three millennia, the Greek language is one of the oldest languages in the world.
Ancient Greek was developed in the classical era and was the choice of language for mathematicians, philosophers, and playwrights.
Then, Modern Greek became the official language of the Kingdom of Greece in the 19th century.
Today, Greek is spoken by the majority of its population and is used in business, education and government policies; 13 million people use it as their first language.
Even if you don’t speak Greek, you’ve probably used words that originated from it.
If you’ve ever told someone how much you love “marmalade” or talked about how interested you were in “dinosaurs,” know that both have Greek origins.
7. Farsi (3,000 years old)
Farsi, also known as Persian, is an Indo-European language.
The language originated in Iran and is still the official language there.
Farsi is also spoken in neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The language is rich; its literary works have been widely recognised as being one of the four main bodies of world literature.
Some of the more famous and influential poets like Rumi, Nizami, and Daqiqi have left a long-lasting and profound impression on generations.
Did you also know that Farsi is also spoken in many countries across the world because of its diaspora communities?
The language is spoken by a significant minority in Uzbekistan and by diaspora communities throughout Israel, Australia, North America, and Europe.
Altogether, an estimated 110 million people globally speak Farsi.
8. Tamil (2,300 years old)
Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world, with the origins of the language traced back to the southern part of the Indian subcontinent.
Experts have discovered literary works dating back to 350 BC.
Its literary heritage encompasses classical works, modern literature, and poetry.
With a sophisticated literary tradition spanning over two thousand years, Tamil has had a profound impact on many different areas — including art, culture and academia.
The language was instrumental in shaping and developing the cultural and intellectual landscape, particularly in South India.
Its script, consisting of elegant and distinct characters, is used for writing not only in Tamil but also in other Dravidian languages.
9. Italian (2,100 years old)
Italian, as we know it today, originated from Vulgar Latin, the colloquial form of the Latin language spoken by the common people during the decline of the Roman Empire.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the language’s first developments began forming from a variety of regional dialects.
One dialect that was spoken in Florence stood out.
The Tuscan dialect, with its phonetic and grammatical features, became the foundation of what would later become the Italian language.
Great literary works by Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, and Boccaccio were all written in the Tuscan dialect, further spreading the language across the region at that time.
The language continued undergoing standardisation and codification until the unified national language for the newly formed Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861.
Today, roughly 61.8 million people worldwide speak Italian as their mother tongue.
It is also an official language in San Marino, Italy and Switzerland and is spoken in 13 other countries.
10. Korean (2,100 years old)
Korean is the last on our list of the top 10 oldest languages in the world.
The language is spoken by more than 75 million people today – 48 million living in South Korea and 24 million living in North Korea.
Korean has unique linguistic characteristics and belongs to the Koreanic language family, which is a language isolate, meaning it does not have any known close relatives.
It is not directly related to Chinese, Japanese, or other neighbouring languages.
The earliest evidence of this language comes from Old Korean inscriptions such as the Samguk Yusa and the Gwanggaeto Stele, which date back to the 4th century.
The Samguk Yusa tells of the history and legends of Korea’s founding and was compiled by Buddhist monk Iryeon and is considered invaluable today.
Meanwhile, the Gwanggaeto Stele was and still is the largest engraved stele in the world.
The engraving describes the main events of the Goruryeo king Gwanggaeto the Great.
Below are some interesting facts about the Korean language:
- The Korean alphabet, Hangul, was created in 1443 by King Sejong the Great.
- Korean is a tonal language, which means that the pitch of the voice can change the meaning of words.
- Korean is a very expressive language, and it is often used to convey emotion.