It is difficult to pinpoint the precise number of languages today, but anthropologists put it at approximately 7000.
Only about 200 of these languages are spoken by more than one million people, meaning less than 100,000 people speak many of the languages in existence.
Also, a significant number of the languages spoken today are a few centuries old.
Many of today’s languages evolved and sprung from previous languages, some of which are extinct.
Even the English spoken today differs from that spoken during the middle ages.
If you are wondering, English is not among the oldest languages. Modern English is among the youngest languages at only five centuries old.
Let us dig deep into the story and locate the first languages spoken by humanity, beginning with the oldest.
#10: Persian (2500 Years Old)
Persian, also referred to as Farsi, emerged in 525 BC in ancient Iran.
Persian evolved through three stages: Old, Middle, and Modern Persia.
Old Persians (525 BC to 300 BC) birthed the language and used Behistun inscriptions to write it down. Some inscriptions can be found in Kermanshah City in Iran, which has since been elevated to a UNESCO World Heritage site because of these.
The Persian King Darius (the same one described in the Old Testament of the Bible) is believed to have authored the Kermanshah inscriptions in 500 BC.
The inscriptions are in three languages: Elamite, Old Persian, and Babylonian.
The Pahlavi Illustrations are an example of the Middle Persian language (300 BC to 800 AD). The Pahlavi was predominantly used in the Sasanian Empire and continued with its prestige language status after its collapse.
Modern Persian emerged around 800 AD and is the present-day official language in Iran, Tajikistan (where it’s known as Tajik), and Afghanistan (where it’s known as Dari). A significant population in Uzbekistan also speaks Modern Persia.
The language in each of these regions has some slight differences.
The Afghans and Iranians use the Persian Alphabet to write Modern Persia, while people in Tajikistan use the Tajik Alphabet to write it down. This is because the Persian alphabet borrows a lot from the Arabic script, while the Tajik Alphabet evolved from Cyrillic writings.
More than 100 million people speak the Modern Persian language today.
#9: Latin (2700 Years Old)
Ancient Rome made Latin its offal language for the empire and religion, explaining why the Roman Church considers it its official language.
Latin emerged sometime in 700 BC. Scholars categorize Latin as an Indo-European language. The other languages that fall under this category include Italian, French, Romanian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Even English is an Indo-European language.
Interestingly, the people who originally spoke Latin were called Romans. The name “Romans” is derived from Romulus, the founder of the language.
The influence of the Roman empire propagated the spread of the language to many areas around the world that were part of the empire’s territory.
#8: Aramaic (2900 Years Old)
The Aramaean birthed the Aramaic language sometime in 900 BC. The Aramaeans were a Semitic group from the Middle East.
By 700 BC, the language had become popular and spread across different cultures, and the Assyrians even considered it their second language.
The Assyrians and Babylonian merchants helped to spread the language as they traded with other middle eastern communities.
By 600 BC, Aramaic had replaced Akkadian as the official language of the Middle East. Subsequently, the Achaemenian Persians (559 BC to 330 BC) adopted the language.
Greek eventually displaced Aramaic as the official Persian empire language.
#7: Hebrew (3000 Years Old)
Hebrew is a Semitic language spoken in the Northwest. Anthropologists consider it as one of the Afroasiatic languages. Historically, it’s one Israelites’ spoken languages. The longest-surviving descendants of the Israelites—the Samaritans and Jews—also speak it.
Hebrew is Israel’s official language. However, Palestinians also adopted Hebrew as their official language sometime after World War I.
Jews consider Hebrew a holy language because it was used to write the Old Testament.
The language emerged about 1000 BC, disappeared but was later revived by the Israelites.
The written format of Hebrew is written and read from right to left, unlike English which follows the opposite direction.
#6: Han Ethnic Chinese (3250 Years Ago)
Today, there’s no such thing as the Chinese language, despite many people using this term to refer to the language the Chinese use for communication.
Mandarin and Cantonese are the main languages in China today and are what most outsiders call Chinese. But these languages are relatively recent. Cantonese emerged in 220 AD, while Mandarin emerged in the 1300s AD.
Ancient Chinese spoke another language, which scholars christened Han ethnic Chinese. Han ethnic Chinese emerged around 1250 BC.
Like many other languages that have spoken and written versions, spoken Hans ethnic Chinese is likely older than the date given above, which comes from evidence of the first written format of the language.
Scholars categorize Hans ethnic Chinese as a Sinitic language, a collective terminology that describes the many languages spoken by minority groups in China.
#5: Greek (3450 Years Ago)
Greek is among the few ancient tongues that still exist today. Indeed, Greek developed approximately three and a half millenniums ago and is still a primary language in present-day Greece.
Greek emerged in the Balkans and was likely spoken before 1450 BC. But the earliest evidence of the existence of Greek during ancient times was on a clay tablet that archeologists found in Messenia.
The tablet dates back to between 1450 BC and 1350 BC, which became an indicator of how long the language has existed.
Scholars have shown that, like many other languages, Greek has evolved. The earliest version of the language was Proto-Greek, which was never written down but evolved into all the known Greek versions.
The other versions of Greek are the Mycenaean, Ancient, Koine, and Medieval versions.
Modern Greek, also called Neo-Hellenic Greek, emerged during the Byzantine era sometime during the 11th century. Two versions of Greek are spoken today: Domotiki, the vernacular version, and Katharevousa, a compromised version between ancient Greek and Dimotiki.
#4: Sanskrit (3500 Years Ago)
Sanskrit emerged around 1500 BC and is still used in some religious ceremonies and texts in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Sanskrit is an Indo-Aryan language in the Indo-European family. Like the previous versions, more than one version of Sanskrit existed. Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest version of the language. Some people believed Sanskrit was the oldest language and labeled it the “mother of all tongues.”
Scholars indicate that two versions of the language existed: Vedic Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit. They further point out that the latter evolved from the former.
The two versions of Sanskrit are similar in many ways but differ in grammar, phonology, and vocabulary.
A version of the Sanskrit is still spoken today in many parts of India, and the government even recognizes it as one of the country’s 22 official tongues.
#3: Tamil (5000 Years Ago)
Tamil also joins the list of the oldest languages, having emerged in 3000 BC. Scholars categorize Tamil as a Dravidian Language.
Tamil likely emerged before 3000 BC when the Tamils printed their first grammar book. The spoken version likely existed before the written format emerged.
Tamil is still spoken in some areas around the Indian subcontinent, making it one of the few ancient tongues that exist today. It’s, therefore, the oldest language still in use today.
Sri Lanka and Singapore recognize Tamil as a language. The language is the ancestor of many tongues spoken in India today, including Puducherry, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.
The UN declared Tamil a classical language in 2004 based on its original literary tradition, rich and ancient text, and antiquity.
The word Tamil means several things. Although it’s the language’s name, it also means natural, sweet, and beautiful.
Did you know that Tamil is also personified as a god?
The god is known as Tamil Thai, and since Thai means “mother,” Tamil language is considered a mother.
Finally, Tamil has earned recognition as a minority language in Mauritius, Malaysia, and South Africa.
#2: Egyptian (5000 Years Ago)
It is not a surprise that one of the oldest languages originated in Africa. After all, Africa has repeatedly been christened as the cradle of humankind.
The ancient Egyptian language emerged around 3000 BC and, like the Sumerian language, became extinct in 641 AD when the Arabs conquered Egypt.
Ancient Egyptians wrote their language using Hieroglyphic scripts comprising symbols of humans, animals, and various artificial objects.
The earliest discovered Hieroglyphic scripts dated back to 2600 BC and comprised names and short stories. The autobiographies inscribed on the walls of private tombs are examples of Hieroglyphs.
Archeologists observed changes in the written Egyptian language, reflecting an evolution over the 4000 years it existed.
As described above, the first stage, Old Egyptian, comprised names and brief sentences. It was the primary method of written communication for ancient Egyptians between 2600 BC and 2100 BC.
Since the language is older than the written symbols, it was likely spoken for some time before the Egyptians developed a common way of writing it down.
Ancient Egyptians used the second stage, Middle Egyptian, between 2100 BC and 1500 BC. Changes in the spoken language likely triggered the change in the written language. Ancient Egyptians recorded Middle Egyptians in Hieratic and Hieroglyphs.
The former was used for legal documents, letters, and literary texts and accounts, while the latter was used for autobiographies on tombs, temple inscriptions, and royal stelae and decrees.
The third stage, Late Egyptian, lasted between 1500 BC and 700 BC. Scribes wrote late Egyptian Hieroglyphs, papyri, Hieratic, and Ostraca. Like earlier versions, changes in spoken language caused changes in the written language.
The fourth stage was the Demotic which the ancient Egyptians used between 700 BC and 400 AD. Ancient Egyptians stopped using the Hieratic and Hieroglyphs during the fourth stage. Instead, they used Demotic texts to communicate using this language.
The final stage of the Egyptian language, or Coptic, emerged in 400 AD but gradually faded as Arabic gained popularity in the region. It lasted from the Byzantine era to the onset of the Islamic era.
#1: Sumerian (5,000 Years Ago)
The Sumerian language emerged approximately in 3200 BC. It also holds the title of the oldest written language. Sumerians wrote the language using cuneiforms. Cuneiforms comprised wedge-shaped symbols, which the Sumerians made by making an impression on soft clay tablets using a sharpened reed stylus.
Archeologists found some tablets dating back to the fourth millennium with inscriptions of teaching materials and administrative records.
Ancient Sumerians living in southern Mesopotamia spoke using this now-extinct language.
The Sumerian language died off as a spoken language sometime in 2000 BC, when Sumerians began speaking Semitic Akkadians. But the Assyro-Babylonians continued using it as a written language for close to a millennium after they stopped speaking it.
Sumerian was never spoken beyond the southern Mesopotamian boundaries.
More from A-Z Animals
The Featured Image
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
- History Museum, Available here: https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/egypt/egcw02e.html
- NGA, Available here: https://www.nga.gov/features/byzantine/byzantine-empire-chronology-.html