The need to communicate is an inherent quality that all living things possess. While animals have their own ways of communicating, humans have languages. And just as humans have evolved, so have our languages! With each changing generation, languages have changed in many ways, both big and small. Some languages have branched out into different dialects, while some have gone extinct. Some others still remain unchanged from the time of their origin till date, spoken and written in the same form as they were all those centuries ago!
In this article, we give you a low-down on some of the oldest languages in the world that are still spoken today. While some of them may be common knowledge, some of them are sure to surprise you! So let’s get to the list, shall we?
8. Irish Gaelic
Year: 4th century AD
Country/Area of Origin: Ireland
Number of Speakers: 74,000 approximately
An addition that may be surprising to many readers, Irish Gaelic is, in fact, one of the oldest spoken languages in the world, despite its relatively small group of speakers. What could be even more surprising is that this language was developed long before Latin even came into the picture! Oh, and did we mention that it is has the oldest vernacular literature among any of the Western European language? Irish Gaelic is currently recognized as Ireland’s official language and is a minority language in Northern Ireland.
Year: 10th century BCE
Country/Area of Origin: Israel
Number of Speakers: 9 million approximately
No doubt one of the most beautiful and interesting languages (did you know Hebrew has no vowels?) in the world, Hebrew is the official language of the State of Israel. The language of the Old Testament, Hebrew almost became defunct between 200-400 CE, when people stopped using it as an everyday spoken language. However, with the advent of Zionism in the last two centuries, Hebrew regained its momentum and is spoken by Jews the world over.
Hebrew can be either Modern Hebrew (the more commonly spoken and used language) or Pre-modern Hebrew (used only for prayer and study) and is still evolving. The Academy of the Hebrew Language currently invents about 2,000 new words in Hebrew each year, so as to prevent the incorporation of English into this culturally-rich language.
Year: 300 BCE
Country/Area of Origin: India and Sri Lanka
Number of Speakers: 78 million approximately
One of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world, records show that Tamil dates back to 300 BC and has been spoken for over 2,000 years! A “Dravidian” language (predominantly spoken in the southern regions of India), Tamil is the 20th most spoken language in the world, which means around 78 million people in the world speak the language! This isn’t all that surprising, considering that Tamil is used as the official language in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Union Territory of Puducherry, and the countries of Sri Lanka, India and Singapore.
Tamil can be classified into classical, modern, and colloquial Tamil and all three of these forms are still used today. What sets the language apart is that unlike other classical languages that became defunct at some point in history, Tamil has been continuously used since its inception.
Year: 512 BCE
Country/Area of Origin: Arabia
Number of Speakers: 422 million approximately
Just like the Arabs conquered the world at one point of time, so did their language. The fifth most widely spoken language in the world, with at least 290 million people considering it their first language, Arabic is the official language of a whopping 28 countries, as well as one of the official languages of the United Nations. Modern Arabic is derived from the Holy Quran and while many different dialects of the language exist today, there are no major differences between these branches.
Dating back to the Iron Age, Arabic has been a majorly used language in science, mathematics and philosophy, due to which many European languages have influences of Arabic in them, having borrowed words from the language. In fact, Arabic has influenced at least 20 languages around the world, including Spanish, Hindi and Urdu!
Year: 600 BCE
Country/Area of Origin: Iran
Number of Speakers: 110 million approximately
Persian probably conjures up images of ethereal Sufi dancers, mystical fakirs and Aladdin! Spoken in modern day Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and other regions that were formerly a part of Greater Iran, Persian is one of the oldest languages in the world. Modern Persian evolved from Old Persian around 800 CE and has more or less remained unchanged since then. This means that any person well-versed in the language today, could pick up an inscription from 800 CE and still be able to read it, and probably much more easily than most English speakers could read Shakespeare!
Due to the whole political tug-of-war that happened in the region, Persian is also called Dari in Afghanistan and Tajiki in Tajikistan, but both are essentially Persian with minor changes. Over the centuries, Persian has majorly influenced other languages such as Urdu. Persian literature holds great historical significance and is widely studied by researchers and linguists across the world.
Year: Assumed to be 1120 BCE
Country/Area of Origin: Greece
Number of Speakers: 13 million approximately
The language of the philosophers, thinkers and great intellectuals in general, the origins of Greek are as complicated to understand as the language itself (there’s a reason things you don’t understand are “Greek and Latin”!), with arguments about the era of its origin. Modern Greek evolved from Ancient Greek around 11th century AD and though it has evolved considerably from its earliest version, it holds the record for being the world’s oldest living language.
This doesn’t really come as a surprise, considering that the language has over 34 centuries worth of written records! Greek is one of the official languages of the United Nations, as well as the official language of Greece and Cyprus.
Year: 1250 BCE
Country/Area of Origin: China and parts of Southeast Asia
Number of Speakers: 1.2 billion approximately
The most spoken language in the world today, Chinese dates back to over 3,000 years ago with approximately 16% of the world’s population speaking at least one form of the language (that means, hypothetically, that every sixth person in the world can speak Chinese!).
While the oldest form of Chinese (Old Chinese) is no longer used, several dialects that have branched out from the original form, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Min and Yue are widely spoken, with Mandarin and Cantonese being the most widely spoken variations. Due to its widely spoken nature, Chinese is one of the official languages of the United Nations, as well as being the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Country/Area of Origin: Basque country
Number of Speakers: 900,000 approximately
Few languages can claim to be more mysterious than Basque. So mysterious is this language that scientists have been unable to determine the time of its origins. What is known is that the language is the surviving language from the pre-Indo-European era, a time before the Romans reached Spain around the 2nd century AD.
Thus, Basque is completely unrelated to any of the other European languages, even the “Romantic” French and Spanish, and is only spoken in the Basque country region. Today, 900,000 people speak and consider Basque their native tongue, using Latin as the script for the language. A mystery greater than trying to understand why “Warner Bros.” ever decided to make “Catwoman”, we think.
The Final Word
The importance of languages can’t be denied, especially given the fact that with the advent of technology and globalization, being at least a bilingual speaker puts you on a level above those who speak only one language. These languages, which are rich in history and culture, are not only the oldest languages in the world but are still widely spoken globally. As Frank Smith said “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” So go ahead and give one of these languages a try or read more about them; after all, each different language gives you a different perspective of the world and its history!