What are the Oldest Languages on Earth?

Caitlin Nicholson

oldest language

Okay, you clicked on this post, so we owe you the answer to the titular question: what are the oldest languages on Earth? But, like most things in life, the answer to this question isn’t as simple as it might seem.

This is due to the fact that we must consider a number of factors in order to answer it: What is the oldest spoken form, and what is the oldest codified form, or written form? Many scholars discount a longstanding oral tradition in favor of pointing only to written language, while others will go back to centuries B.C. when there was first evidence of gesture-based sign language.

So, we will take the question and break it down into some easily digestible parts.

What is the oldest written form of language?

If you want the absolute oldest written language, the answer is likely Sumerian or Egyptian, as both developed writing systems based on pictograms or runes that started appearing as far back as 3200 B.C.

What is the oldest written form of language that is still in use today?

This changes the answer, as Sumerian and Egyptian hieroglyphs have long since fallen out of use. Chinese and Greek are cited as the oldest languages that are still around today: there is evidence of both of these languages appearing circa 1500 B.C. But Hebrew is also one of the oldest written languages still in use today. However, it is not often cited as being among the oldest because it fell out of use for centuries and was later reintroduced into common Judaic practice.

What is the oldest spoken language?

Around 3200 B.C. there were many spoken languages that existed alongside the written languages of Sumerian and Egyptian. They just were not fortunate enough to have been codified. It is thought that Albanian might be the oldest spoken language, but it was only written down about 500 years ago.

How old is language itself?

This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer, and it is a topic that is still hotly debated amongst professional linguists. But it is widely held that full linguistic capabilities developed in humans around 100,000 B.C. This is when modern humans first appeared, with the standard skull size that we have today, as well as the vocal tract that indicated that they would have been able to make the sounds required of modern language.

Even still, there are plenty of people who believe that language developed prior to modern humans, and that the proto-humans, or ancestors, had languages of their own. We may never know for sure, but it’s fascinating to think of the ways that language has affected the human race for millennia.

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