Exploring the Ancient Tongues: The Origins and Legacy of the World’s Oldest Languages

Featured & Cover Exploring the Ancient Tongues The Origins and Legacy of the World’s Oldest Languages

Currently, there are over 7,100 languages in the world, but almost 40% of these are endangered. Each language is a thread in the vast tapestry of human history, making the pursuit to discover the oldest language particularly intriguing.

Ancient written languages like Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian used cuneiform script and date back at least 4,600 years. Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as those found in the tomb of Pharaoh Seth-Peribsen, contain some of the earliest-known complete sentences. Historians concur that these are among the earliest languages with clear written records, although they are now extinct.

For languages that are still spoken today, Hebrew and Arabic stand out. Written evidence for these languages dates back about 3,000 years. Both belong to the Afroasiatic language family, which dates back 20,000 to 10,000 years. This makes Afroasiatic widely accepted as the oldest language family, though there is debate over the precise timelines.

There is also considerable debate about other ancient languages like Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tamil. Chinese likely emerged from Proto-Sino-Tibetan around 4,500 years ago, with the earliest written records dating back approximately 3,300 years. Sanskrit’s written records, found in ancient Hindu texts, date back to 1500-1200 BCE. While Sanskrit is no longer a first language, its influence endures in many modern Indian languages. Tamil, spoken by around 85 million people, boasts documented literature that is at least 2,000 years old, with the Tolkāppiyam potentially being as ancient as 7,000-2,800 years. These discussions underscore the complexities in determining the world’s oldest languages and will persist until more conclusive evidence emerges.


Egypt is renowned as one of the world’s oldest civilizations, with Egyptian Coptic being its earliest native language. Written records date back to 3400 BC, and Coptic was Egypt’s primary language until the late 17th century AD. Today, Coptic is mainly used as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in Egypt, with only a few fluent speakers remaining.


Sanskrit’s earliest form appears in the Rigveda, a sacred Hindu text. Known as the ‘language of the gods’ in Hinduism, Sanskrit is essential for understanding ancient Indian history, scriptures, and philosophy. It significantly influences many languages, particularly in South Asia. Modern Indian languages like Hindi, Bengali, and Marathi have roots in Sanskrit and extensively borrow from its vocabulary. Sanskrit is fundamental to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, serving as the language for many foundational texts of these religions, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita.


Tamil, spoken by 78 million people and recognized as an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore, is one of the world’s oldest languages. Part of the Dravidian family, which includes several native languages of southern and eastern India, Tamil is primarily spoken in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and holds official status in India. Inscriptions dating back to the 3rd century BC attest to its ancient origins.


Hebrew ceased to be widely spoken around 400 CE but has been preserved as a liturgical language among Jews worldwide. The revival of Hebrew, driven by the rise of Zionism in the 19th and 20th centuries, led to its establishment as the official language of Israel. Although Modern Hebrew differs from its Biblical form, native speakers can fully understand ancient texts. Additionally, Modern Hebrew has been influenced by various other Jewish languages.


As the language of the Quran, Arabic holds sacred significance. It is spoken by approximately 260 million people worldwide and includes numerous dialects. Arabic serves as the foundation for languages such as Urdu and Malay, and its influence extends to English, with words like algebra, alcohol, and emir having Arabic origins.


Chinese is spoken by approximately 1.2 billion people worldwide and is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It encompasses numerous complex dialects. Chinese characters date back about 3,000 years, with hieroglyphs tracing their origins to the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC). In 1956, the written script was simplified to enhance readability and accessibility.


Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus and developed in ancient Greece and Asia Minor, now part of Turkey. It has an unbroken tradition of written use spanning over 3,000 years, surpassing any other Indo-European languages spoken today. This rich history is categorized into Ancient Greek, Medieval Greek, and Modern Greek stages. Today, Greek is spoken by over 15 million people, primarily in Greece and Cyprus, with sizable Greek-speaking communities also found in countries like the United States and Australia.

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