When asked, most people have no idea that there are so many ancient languages that have graced historic times on this planet. At least 12 distinct languages are known to be over 3000 years old, but that’s Greek to most people! Although many of these languages are now extinct – in that there are no more native speakers left – it must be noted that many have taken on different forms and are considered to be the predecessors of modern languages today.
In this article, we will explore just a few of these archaic tongues and the influence they have had on modern thought.
Original Greek is thought to date from circa 1400 BCE but some experts put it at more than 5000 years old. It is one of the few languages still spoken today – by more than 15 million people in Greece. Greek accounts for a sizable portion of ancient literature and has contributed many gems such as the New Testament of the Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey and other works of literature that are considered precursors to modern Western philosophy and culture. Scientific language in English today contains more than 100,000 words that were “borrowed” from the Greek language. There are at least 14 documented dialects of this language.
Another ancient language that has made its way into modern Western culture is Latin. Promoted by the ancient Romans, this unique language dates from circa 1000 BCE. Although it is considered a “dead” language in that it is only spoken in the Vatican, there are innumerable words that have made their way into fields of study such as zoology and botany; in fact, 70% of all books written before the year 1501 – collectively called ‘incunabula’ – have been written in Latin. Although there were several dialects of Latin spoken during the heyday of this language, history records only the two most important categories – Vulgar Latin and Classical Latin. Vulgar, in this instance, does not mean objectionable – rather, it refers to the word ‘common’; this is because it was spoken by the larger population, and differed from the Classical – and more formal – dialect in which books were typically written.
This is another significant language from a historical perspective as it encompasses two major world religions – Judaism and Christianity. Dating from circa 1000 BCE, it is grouped under the Afro-Asiatic languages that include modern Arabic, Ancient Egyptian and Aramaic (the language spoken during the time of Jesus Christ.) The Old Testament in the Bible has been written in Hebrew, as have several other key documents discovered subsequently. Impact-wise, it is one of the most influential languages in West Asian culture and continues to be spoken by more than 7 million people in what is now Israel.
There are two very rare villages in India where this ancient tongue is still spoken today as a regional language. Mattur and Hosahalli in the Southern state of Karnataka are two of the few scattered villages across the vast Indian Subcontinent where this language is still used colloquially. However, it still continues to be used by Vedic teachers and Hindu scholars, known as Brahmins. The earliest written form of this language is the Rig Veda, penned circa 3000 BCE; Sanskrit has the privilege of being known as the mother of all European languages and has thus made its claim to fame for eternity.
Another, completely indigenous language from India is Tamil. Though most scholars agree that the language originated circa 300 BCE, some contend that it is actually 17 centuries older than that. As a living language, it has far more speakers than any other ancient tongue barring Mandarin – more than 77 million people across the world still speak it, albeit in its many newer forms that include words based on urban slang usage. Tamil currently enjoys official status in 4 or more countries and territories around Asia.
In linguistic terms, the word ‘Chinese’ actually refers to a group of languages of Sino-Tibetan origin. The standard form – Mandarin – is the official language of China and is spoken by more than 1.4 billion people – by far the largest number of speakers of an ancient language. As such, it is also the most spoken language in the world. Although scholars tend to date its origin to circa 2000 BCE, many strongly believe that it is at least 10,000 years old – putting it at circa 8,000 BCE and making it one of the oldest languages known to man.
There are many other languages that fall in the ‘ancient tongue’ category, namely: Persian, Akkadian, Sumerian, Armenian and Egyptian. All of these languages have rich histories and cultures from which they emerged as forms of communication. Communication itself is thought to have originated in prehistoric times when man could only convey his ideas by actions, sounds and pictures. Sounds are believed to be the precursors of spoken language, and pictures to be the forerunners of written forms of languages as we know them today.
Please do me a favor and do some research about the albanian language. I think it is the oldest in europe and I’m a 100% sure its older than greek, it is proven.
Thanks for stopping by, Petrit. However, using a condescending tone is totally unnecessary. I believe people can have an interesting discussion (even if disagreeing) while still keeping things polite.
Regarding your argument about the Albanian language, the first written records of it date back to the 13th century, while for Greek there are more than 34 centuries of written records. I hope this shows that I HAVE done some research. Of course, should you have other data that contradicts what I just wrote, please feel free to share. I am open to learning new things.
herodot say Dacian whas the most brave from thracians and the first
so dacian language whas the mother of Rome language ,latin so what about this?
Great to mail you Madam….My feel is that Tamil is the Oldest Language still in use and official Language of 4 countries, where no other language has such a distinction…. pl correct me if i am wrong…well another thing is recently i read that Tamil is really 10,000 years old by an eminent language researcher… i will find out the name and come back to you madam,
Kindly clear my doubt that is Tamil the Oldest Language?
Thanks for the comment. As you may have noticed, these are based on the earliest written records. For Tamil it is said it’s indeed a lot older than we have proof, If you have found more recent research that shows this, please share.
Thanks for your research. Tamil is oldest when compared to Tamil u can find lot of tamil words in sanskrit.Actually tamils/dravidians are original inhabitants of india.These Fair looking aryans came from European nations and spreaded sanskrit.
Tamil literatures are very old and with no sanskrit word or infulence.And even nothing is mentioned about hinduiism in thirukural and other tamil literatures.Its now official anguage of several countries.And has more native speakers till now.
Thirukkural is not based on any religious belief
I would like to notice that it is not only which language is the oldest, but which was the most important over the centuries. Greek influenced all over the world. Academics, scientists of History, Literature, Philosophy study the ancient greek language which gave so much to the world. And the Greek language which is alive, gave thousands of words to the world. And of course, it’s the country where were born so many institutions. DEMOCRACY, PHILOSOPHY, LITERATURE, MEDICINE etc. The thoughts of ancient greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the father of medicine, Hippocrates, the father of literature Homer, the father of History Herodotus influenced and inspired the world and gave the FOUNDATIONS to the humanity, that’s why ancient Greek were studied so much by academics and scholars.
Hi Maria, many thanks for stopping by and for your comment. The purpose of this post was specifically to look at the oldest languages, surviving or not. I would actually not dare to approach a topic such as ‘the most important’ language, as I don’t believe there’s such a thing. Each and every language is important in its own right. However, it’s lovely to see your passion for Greek (which I assume is your mother tongue) shine through.
Nice summary of the oldest languages. Alina, many thanks for your work. Does your work also includes finding any valuable messages from the earliest speakers. For sure you would have come across interesting informations while your research, can you please share.
Disclaimer: my mother tongue is Tamil.
Hi Mani, thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I only looked at how old these languages are, I didn’t look into messages left by the earliest speakers. But you are right, that would be interesting indeed.
Nice attempt to bring out the details of ancient languages spoken in the world.
As regards the statement “Sanskrit has the privilege of being known as the mother of all European languages and has thus made its claim to fame for eternity.”, there is a need for factual verification. Old Sanskrit and a few Iranian languages such as Avesta, have the common ancestor from Old Iranian language. You can refer to T.Burrow, The Sanskrit Language, 1955, Publisher: Faber and Faber Ltd,, It is not a mother of all European languages but that of many North Indian Languages.
Hi madam, Congratulations to you for your remarkable work. To know the ancient language of the world, we need to know the ancient world before the great ice-age. The world map that we have is a new map after the submersion of the great continent Lemuria, which is also known as the Kumari kandam that existed down south of Indian peninsular from time immemorial. According to the ancient manuscripts in Tamil, there were seven countries existed with various kings and rulers. The origin of human race and civilization have evolved around this submerged continent called Kumari kandam where also one could study that even conferences had been held in honour of literature and development of the Tamil language (Tamil Sangam).The very word Kumari kandam is a chaste tamil word so the people lived in here spoke no other languages than Ancient form of Tamil. Although I have given only inadequate evidence but I believe that the oldest and most ancient language even spoken till today is none other than Tamil which is also enjoying the privilege of being the official language of not less than five countries in East Asia.
Hello, no mention of Amharic? Goodbye.
Thanks for stopping by and for your question. Since this is a blog post and not an extensive research paper, including all ancient languages would be an impossible task.
You may have also notices that I took into account the earliest written records, which for Amharic happened later (AD) than for the ones I mention (BCE). I hope this answers your question.
Appreciation for your consolidated and brief article about ancient spoken languages.
Can you take a little more time and dig deeper in the research to find out the age of TAMIL.
Because, non-availability of evidence cannot be taken as granted for non-occurrence of an event, right?
As you know, 55% of the epigraphical Inscription found in India are in Tamil.Tamil-Brahmi Script inscription are found in Egypt,Thailand,Sri lanka,Which is about 2000 years old.
Also, Tamil Language had well defined written grammar even 2500 years ago(Tholkkapium).So Many believe that Tamil also one of the Language evolved during origin of Communication.
So, can you please share your knowledge regarding that?
“Though most scholars agree that the language originated circa 300 BCE, some contend that it is actually 17 centuries older than that. ” > which means that according to some, it is older than 2300 years, while others say it may be as old as 4000 years.
Good post. But you have forgot basque language. Is a pre-indoeuropean language. Sorry Chinnu not all the european languages came from Sanscrit. Now there are around 1,5 million basque speaking people. Most of them in the basque conutry, of course. Scientists think that the basque language is, at least, 4000 years old.
(Greetings from the Basque Country)
Hi and thanks for stopping by. With Basque, there seem to be a lot of controversy, both in terms of its origin and its age.
Since this is a blog post, I had not intended to include ALL ancient languages – that I leave it to researchers. So, it’s not a matter of ‘forgetting’ to include a certain language, but rather picking a few that are best known. 🙂
I would like to introduce myself. This is Palpandi from Tamilnadu, one of the states of India. First, I would like to share the special things of Tamil language.
1. The Language which worshiped as a god
2. The people naming their mother tongue as their name
3. Pronunciation of the letters itself is best breath exercise.
4. It has its own grammar written before 2300 years.
5. Still lot of words are being used by Tamil people over 2000 years.
6. Over 55% of inscriptions found in India are in Tamil
7. ThiruKural is a classical novel which contains all the facts of people and explain the human to how to live…
8. “Yaadhum oorey yaavaram kelir” which means “I am a world citizen and every citizen of this work is my kith and kit” — This statement has been made before 3000 years in Tamil.
These are all the few highlighted things about Holy language.
Any thing in the world cannot survive without accepting the change. Its changed a lot but it never gives up it’s Uniqueness, Immortality.
I am coming the historical events which will brings us over the decades. Western languages, Egypt, sumarian, Latin have had their own historical monuments. but in our case(Tamil), We haven’t kept secure our historical wars, Events or anything because The kings who ruled here didn’t think that that is important than keep their people happily. Still we can find some of the historical events and disasters via ancient novels available in Tamil(Agananoor, Purananoor, Silapathigaram,etc…)
This history of Tamil has been divided into three parts. It still needs to be proved but I am saying here with ancient novels available in Tamilnadu as I mentioned above. 1. Mudhal sangam 2. Idai sangam 3. Kadai sangam
Note: Ancient novels—> The novels which have discovered and depend to kadaisangam.
Sangam is a meaning of “collection of something” and it is not a pure tamil word. This word is being used after 1st century AD. There wasn’t word called sangam in the ancient novels. They were using different words like “koodal, avai ….” which serves the same meaning of sangam and they are still in use.
Mudhal sangam(Thalai sangam) :-
As I said, Sangam is a meaning of “collection”.
Here Sangam is a meaning of collection of people(Poet).
Number of poets gathered in one place and researched about their language. The place where they gathered is “Thenmadhurai” which positioned more south to kanyakumari. Kanyakumari is south end of India today. So you might have came to an Idea. yes, Thenmadurai is no longer available now. The count of kings and poets mentioned in the ancient novels are little unacceptable. If you accept that then you may extend this beautiful language’s age to more than 10000 years.
After the lost of Thenmadurai, The king who ruled the region he Immigrated his people to north side of Thenmadurai the place called “Kapadapuram still it is south to Kanyakumari. There also number of poets were researching and creating lot of novels. Again the hard time came and the novels and people submerged into the sea.
The above Unusual and happened things were elaborated only in the novels which were written in this period. Historical researchers saying that this might have happened during 5th BC-3rd AD. Pandiya’s the emperors offered poets and brought some wonderful novels to this world. Thirukural, Tholkapiryam, agananoor, Purananoor, ……. lot of novels were released at this time only.
I am not the well known person of this historical facts and I missed lot of historical witnesses here. If you have an interest to know about this, You can find lot of research papers about world’s great language(Tamil) in the internet.
The Pain of this common Indian citizen is that the Indian government never respects or gives credit to this beautiful language Tamil. Giving credit is secondary, It should not hide the truth to outside world. We are proud to say that we are Indian but we are pride to say that we are Tamilans.
Vazhaga Tamil(Long live to Tamil)
nice blog Alina.
I Love U Tamil…….
Bce, thats my mother tongue,next its a oldest language in the world…
Thank u Alina Cincan(அலினா சின்கென்)
I would like to point out, tamil goes back way longer than any languages stated above. Infact sanskrit actually came from tamil and sanskrit has a lot of words from tamil.
So my point is that tamil goes back over 6000 years.
This was found by an American study.
Thanks for not being biased and giving Space to Tamizh
Have you read about Kannada? There are theories where it’s older than Tamil n in fact older than all spoken languages present today….
Hi Alina and thanks for your great article.
I was looking up the meaning of “infinite” in ancient languages but wasn’t so successful duo to lack of resources and dictionarues.can you tell me the translation of “infinite” in all the ancient languages if possible?
If you’re a reader, please tell me the translation of “infinite” in ancient languages if you know.
Thanks for reading, Ahmed. I’m afraid I cannot help with your request though.The article is about the history of these languages, it doesn’t mean I can speak any of them unfortunately.
எல்லையற்ற Ellaiyarra in tamil