10 Oldest Written Languages in The World

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We often take our language for granted, especially English, since it’s one of the most popular languages in the world. Currently, linguists estimate that there are just over 6,900 languages spoken on Earth, and they all had to start somewhere.

There are several languages that we can trace back thousands of years, and some go back further than you probably realize. We have done our research and discovered the oldest written language. But, before we get to that, take a look at some of the oldest languages in existence:

10. Arabic

Date 328 AD
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic
Native To:  Countries of the Arab League and parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa
Number of Modern Speakers: Up to 420 million

Arabicphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Arabic can be traced all the way back early 300s, and has evolved over time from a variant of the language referred to as Old Arabic. The first known example of the Arabic language was from the Namara inscription, which was discovered in 1901. The inscription was found on a basalt rock, which could have come from a tomb.

This is significant because it proved that the Romans and Arabs knew about each other in the fourth century, which was unknown previous to that. Though some people point out that the inscription isn’t totally Arabic, it is an excellent, and very early, instance of the Arab language.

9. Mayan Languages

Date 292 AD
Language Family: Mayan Language
Native To:  Mesoamerica, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and around these areas
Number of Modern Speakers: 6 million

Mayan Languages photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The Mayan family of languages is one of the oldest in the world. There are 32 different dialects of the Mayan language, and all of them can be traced back to the original, which comes from the third century. The earliest Mayan language examples were not words; instead, they were small pictures called glyphs.

The first known example of the Mayan language was found at the ruins of Tikal, an ancient city that was discovered in the rain forest of Guatemala. Within the temple on the site, there are large stone shafts. One of these shafts, Stela 29, contains the oldest known example of a Mayan language.

8. Sanskrit

Date 100 AD
Language Family: Indo-European
Native To:  India, Nepal, and the Asian subcontinent
Number of Modern Speakers: 14,000+

Sanskritphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Another ancient language is Sanskrit, and it dates to around the first century AD. The first known example of Sanskrit was found in the city of Ayodhya, which is in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. However, ancient Sanskrit has also been found in other Indian states including Gujarat.

There are many variations of Sanskrit, and for about 2,000 years, it was the main language of several areas of Southeast Asia. Although Sanskrit is still listed as one of the official languages of India, as of the 2001 Census, only 14,135 people listed it as their official language.

7. Tamil

Date 500 BC, but could be earlier
Language Family: Dravidian
Native To:  India and Sri Lanka
Number of Modern Speakers: About 70 million

Tamilphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The Tamil language is still the primary language of the Tamil people, and forms of it date back all the way to 500 BC. Remarkably, there are still more than 70 million people who still speak Tamil, today.

Of all of the languages of India, Tamil is the only one that can be recognized by modern speakers throughout time. For instance, some who speaks Tamil, today, could read ancient Tamil texts. With other languages, they change so much over time that the language would be unrecognizable.

6. Latin

Date 700 BC
Language Family: Indo-European
Native To:  Southern Europe, Roman Empire
Number of Modern Speakers: Unknown

Aramaicphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

You might think that Latin is a dead language, but that’s not quite true. Traditionally, people saw Latin as a language on paper, but not one that is traditionally spoken. Pope Benedict XVI changed that when he resigned from his post, in Latin, in 2013.

The oldest form of Latin is known as Old Latin, but by about 75 BC, Classical Latin, which is what we are most familiar with, today, was the common language in the area. It’s unknown how many people speak a form of Latin in modern times, but there are many Latin enthusiasts out there who keep the language alive.

5. Aramaic

Date 900 BC
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic
Native To:  Fertile Crescent and Eastern Arabia
Number of Modern Speakers: 450,000

Aramaicphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Aramaic has been around for more than 3,000 years, but is considered endangered, today, because most of the people who speak it are well-passed retirement age. Some forms of Aramaic are already considered “dead,” and more are getting closer all of the time.

You might recognize Aramaic, as it is commonly referred to as the Biblical language, and scholars believe that this is the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. There are still villages out there today that speak the same language, though it is not a popular language.

4. Old Chinese

Date 1250 BC
Language Family: Sino-Tibetan
Native To:  China
Number of Modern Speakers: Zero

Old Chinesephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

As you might expect, Old Chinese is the precursor of modern Chinese. It dates back to more than 3,000 years ago. The oldest known example of Old Chinese was found at the archaeological site of the ancient city of Yinxu. Here, the researchers found oracle bones with the earliest form of the Chinese language.

Researchers believe that there were about 4,000 different characters in Old Chinese. Only half of those have been translated with meaning, and experts don’t know a lot about the grammar of Old Chinese. Old Chinese evolved into Middle Chinese around 600 AD.

3. Mycenaean Greek

Date 1600 BC
Language Family: Indo-European
Native To:  Southern Balkans and Modern Greece
Number of Modern Speakers: Zero

Mycenaean Greekphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Mycenaean Greek is the earliest form of the Greek language, and it dates as far back as the 16th century BC. There are several existing examples of Mycenaean Greek, and the language has been deciphered since the 1950s.

The text that has been found is mostly inventory records and lists. There is no known literature written in Mycenaean Greek. It is believed that the use of this language ended when the Mycenaean civilization fell, but Arcadocypriot Greek, another form of the Greek language, is very similar to the Mycenaean version.

2. Egyptian Language

Date 3300 BC
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic
Native To:  Ancient Egypt
Number of Modern Speakers: None

Egyptian Languagephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Egyptian language is fairly common to everyone thanks to their use of hieroglyphics. For many years, teams of linguists have translated this language, which means we can greatly understand many of the texts that have been found.

The first known sentence written in the Egyptian language was found in a tomb and dates back to 2690 BC. This language was spoken until around the 17th century, though the writing changed over time.

1. Sumerian Language

Date 3500 BC
Language Family: Language Isolate
Native To:  Sumer
Number of Modern Speakers: None

The OldestDigital Photographphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest known written language is Sumerian, and it dates back to at least 3500 BC. The earliest proof that the written Sumerian language existed was the Kish Tablet, which was found in Iraq.

Sumerian is older than Egyptian, but it only lasted as a spoken language until around 2000 BC, when it was replaced by another language, called Akkadian. Sumerian was unknown to the world until the 19th century, when archaeologists began to find evidence of the language.

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