Many of us take hundreds of languages in the world for granted, but they didn’t just spring up overnight. Approximately 7000 languages are still spoken around the world, each coming from a mother language that might not even be spoken today, and there is always a chance that more could develop as humans continue to develop and change at a cultural level. However, that leaves a lot of people with a simple question: what are the human race’s oldest languages?
The first humans to walk the world only had a language in the most basic sense: they used primitive movements and sounds to communicate, but nothing that could be put down in a structured, written form. It wasn’t until 10 000 years ago that we began to speak something that could be written down - which started a trend of languages being recorded by their first use in any written form, rather than the first date that the language was spoken.
This means that many languages have been lost to time. Perhaps that culture never developed a writing system, or none of their texts survived to give us a record of the writing systems they did have. Regardless, a number of languages are already “extinct,” even those that are still used in the world today.
Tamil is arguably the world’ s oldest language overall, although it may not be the first language ever spoken. The Tamil language is over 5,000 years old and first appeared around 3,000 BC, yet still sees regular usage in the modern world, to the point that entire newspapers are written in Tamil. This means that Tamil is also the oldest of the oldest languages that still get spoken, and part of the Earth’s academic community still thinks that it may be the first language that was ever used to such an extent.
Tamil is an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore, as well as spread across 34 different Indian territories. It is the most widely-spoken language in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu but sees usage in other states too.
Sanskrit is not the oldest language on this list, but it inspired a lot of modern human language that we take for granted. It is likely that Sanskrit came almost directly from Tamul, and it still counts as an official language of India despite seeing a low number of speakers. One of the most well-known “oldest language” contenders in the world, Sanskrit, was used to construct the Basic computer language - the main reason being that Sanskrit is structurally simple.
The language has inspired a lot of modern fiction or literature, even in English-speaking countries or communities of the world, and the relative simplicity of the language as a whole makes it a popular starting point for creating fictional languages in media.
Farsi, the official name of the language often called “Persian,” or sometimes “Old Persian,” is the language of the old Achaemenid Empire. It had a significant impact on the Indo-Arayan language families, still seeing a high number of Farsi speakers to this very day - around 110 million people.
Spoken in the Basque Country, Basque is one of the few pre-Indo-European languages that still gets spoken on a regular basis, although modern Basque takes a lot of vocabulary from many of the Romance (Latin) languages in the world.
Arabic first appeared somewhere between the 1st and 4th centuries and still remains one of the most spoken languages in the world, with a large number of speakers in the Arab world / Arab states. It could be an example of the most influential languages in the world, changing the way people speak over a dozen different languages while also borrowing from at least six modern languages in the same way, including English and Aramaic. Arabic has many native speakers, but there are five individual language varieties: Peninsular Arabic, Levantine, Mesopotamian, Egyptic, and Maghrebi.
Aramaic originated in ancient Syria, spreading throughout the Middle East by around the 10th century BC. However, the language is now classified as endangered since it could go extinct within a generation and have no living speakers left to teach new potential speakers.
Egyptian is often erroneously thought to be the oldest language in the world, in part because it is one of the most well-known “oldest language in the world” contenders, despite being beaten by Tamil. It is around 4,700 years old, although proto-hieroglyphs have been found dating back 600 years before the first known Egyptian text. Some estimate that Egyptian may have taken its first proper form before 2690 BC.
Irish Gaelic is relatively new, appearing somewhere between the 13th and 18th century BC as Classica Gaelic before gradually morphing into the predecessor to the modern Irish language. Actual Irish Gaelic is sometimes said to be only about 1,500 years old at most.
The earliest written (known) Armenian text is a translated copy of the Bible from the 5th century, although the use of the language presumably started somewhere around 450 BC. Regardless of how many years old it may be, it is still a living spoken language in Iran, Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia - totaling around five million people.
The first known use of Latin as a written language was in 75 BC, but it was preceded by Old Latin. It became the formal language of the Roman Empire and is the origin point of the “romance languages”: Italian, French, Spanish, Romanian, Catalan, Portuguese, and even some words that we still use in modern English. Although rarely used across the world, it is still in use in Poland and the Vatican and gets taught as a subject of higher education very often.
Korean is generally agreed to be one of the oldest living languages still in use, coming from Proto-Korean and Old-Korean, then later developing into Middle Korean and finally Modern Korean. All of these languages are similar but gradually built on each other over time to form the modern versions that get spoken today. Old Korean was used during the Three Kingdoms period, mainly in Unified Silla, but Chinese influence later led to Old Korean gaining extra Chinese characters that make it less consistent and harder to translate.
The 15th century brought Middle Korean to the forefront, which used a unique set of Korean characters called Hangul that was established by King Sejong the Great. It wasn’t until the 17th century AD that Modern Korean became established, gaining a foothold in many countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, both North and South Korea, Japan, China, and even parts of the U.S. As a result, it is an example of the more spread-out languages on Earth.
The Greek language is one of the most well-used old languages, being spoken by over thirteen million people as of this century. It is among the 10 oldest languages in Europe and is, in fact, one of the oldest languages that people still speak. Greek originally branched out from the Proto Indo European language family and has written records going back 34 centuries, with the Greek alphabet inspiring Gothic, Armenian, Cyrillic, Latin, and Coptic writing systems.
No one doubts the historical significance of Greek on the history of Earth - many world-famous scientific documents, political works, stories, and poems were written in Greek, and even more in the language family that sprung from it. The Christian Bible’s New Testament also includes some Kioné Greek.
Modern Greek is the official language in Greece (naturally) and Cyprus but also sees regular use as a spoken language in the EU and in many parts of the rest of the world, such as Italy and Turkey.
Tamil is most likely the oldest (in terms of origin) language in the world, barring any older undiscovered languages. It is also the oldest of all languages that still get spoken on a regular basis and has managed to avoid becoming an endangered or partially-forgotten language so far. Despite this, many often think that Sanskrit or Egyptian is the oldest, forgetting that Tamil exists entirely.
Since all modern languages are built upon others, it can be difficult to tell exactly how each language has progressed over the years. It is possible that Tamil is somehow connected to an even older forgotten language or that a modern language is multiple layers on top of an older language that has long since been forgotten.
That being said, Egyptian is technically the oldest written language, having been recorded as far back as 2690 through proto-hieroglyphs in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen. Either way, though, Tamil is still the oldest of all languages going by the history that they have and the original date that they were first used. We never know when something new will be unearthed, so if you are interested in the way that historical languages have formed each other, it may be worth keeping an eye out for new discoveries that change the context of the languages that we already know.