Languages have always been the very fiber of humanity. The cornerstone of society, and the force that paved the way for civilization. Without it, societies could not have developed as they did – it is the testament to the great need of human kind to persevere and progress. And languages are certainly a fluid force – they always evolve, they are molded into shape by time and influence. Even today, they disappear and reappear – in new and different forms. But which is the oldest language still in use today?
Answering that question is not an easy task, and in the end, it simply becomes guesswork. Why? Because sadly, the only way to judge the age of a language is by its earliest use in the written form. In all likelihood, the oldest written languages were in use much longer before they were written down, and for how long we will never know for sure. But even so, we can present to you the top 10 oldest languages that are still in daily use in distant corners of the world. Let’s explore the wonderful world of linguistics.
The Dilemma of Dating Languages – The 10 Oldest Languages Still Used Today?
As we have said already, dating a spoken language is a near-impossible task. As spoken languages predate the written languages by tens of thousands of years, we can never truly piece out the picture of the languages that existed in ancient times. Still, with hard work and the complex school of linguistics, we can learn a lot about the development of ancient languages and their influences on those that emerged after.
Throughout history, conquests, wars, and great migrations, all have been influenced both the disappearance and the emergence of languages and entire cultures. European languages are a great example of this. Before the hypothesized migrations of the Indo-European peoples, the tribes and cultures of Old Europe certainly spoke in diverse Paleo-European languages – traces of which still survive to this day.
But they were no match to the rapid spread of an advanced Indo-European culture and their Proto-Indo-European language. It spread throughout the continent and quickly branched off into distinct dialects, which then slowly grew into separate, mutually unintelligible languages – due to geographical isolation, and cultural influence of the European natives.
In Asia, similar situations existed as well. Due to the sheer size of its steppes and natural expanses, Eurasia was a perfect example of how completely different languages can develop over time. Thousands upon thousands of kilometers of land in each direction allowed remote Paleo tribes to develop undisturbed, and nourish their own languages that grew independently. Some of them were suppressed with the huge and sweeping conquests of large cultures and civilizations, such as the Mongols, the Turkic nomads and their khaganates, the Chinese dynasties, or the Slavic Russian emperors.
Even so, the jaw dropping enormity of the steppes and Siberian landscapes of Russia still contain remote Paleo-Siberian tribes that speak distinct languages, which can be very old. But just how old, we might never know.
There is also the subject of the isolate languages. A language isolate denotes a language with no known geographical or ‘genetic’ connections to other extant languages. In Europe, such languages can be the remnants of Old Europe, such as Basque. But there can also be Indo-European isolates – meaning that while they are of Indo-European origin, they do not belong to any known sub-branch of this family. Albanian is a good example of this.
In Asia, Ainu is a great example of a language isolate with no connections to any of its neighbors. Another example is the Vedda language of Sri Lanka. Technically, these examples could easily be amongst the oldest languages still in use, but we will never know this for certain, as their earliest written form greatly hampers our research.
A monk scribing an ancient language. ( Thomas Mucha / Adobe stock)
Surviving Centuries – Unwritten Doesn’t Mean Young
We also have to mention the sheer length of time in which languages were able to develop. No language developed quickly. In the distant past, cultures, tribes, and peoples migrated often – and many times this was done in a peaceful way. Different languages came into contact and over time, the bigger group managed to assimilate the smaller neighbor. Languages disappeared, and the speech that survived was thoroughly reshaped by loanwords and new grammatical developments.
Distance and geographical isolation of those peoples and ethno-linguistic groups also played a great part in the development of languages. A great example are the Slavic people. In their earliest history, these tribes spoke a single language. But as their numbers grew and their culture spread, tribes became distant. Without a direct contact with one another – sometimes for centuries – their subtle tribal dialects and neighboring languages gave way to entirely new languages with unique accentuations and grammars.
Map of Slavic tribes in 7 th-9th century showing how far the different Slavic tribes spread causing changes to their language. (Jirka.h23 / CC BY-SA )
But even so, the modern Slavic peoples can still communicate with one another, no matter which country or tribe they are from. Such is the fluid nature of old languages, there is a real wonder of how people and their identity can be unified through language.
But today, distinct and old languages are becoming a minority. Lingua Francas are widely accepted, but some ancient languages are slowly dying, with less and less native speakers emerging. But even so, we can try and showcase our list of the top 10 oldest languages still in use today. And this is what we have to say!
The Basque language, or Euskara as it is known by its speakers, is truly an amazing and one-of-a-kind language in Europe. It is widely agreed – and certainly true – that Basque is the only remaining Old European language, having survived on its own for centuries, while the others disappeared before the spread of Indo-European languages.
It is spoken today in Basque Country, by some 750,000 native speakers, and around 1,185,000 passive speakers. Basque Country is the home of the Basque people, and it is an area that straddles the border of Spain and France, centered around the Bay of Biscay. Basques and their identity are the last remnants of an ancient, Old Europe, and their independence is denied even today. Their own name for the region is Euskal Herria .
Shot from San Sebastian in modern day Basque Country. ( Horváth Botond / Adobe stock)
As a language, Basque shows no connections to its neighboring languages, all of which belong to the Romance family. An interesting theory links Basque with languages of the Caucasus mountains, such as Chechen and Georgian, which are also unique. Either way, Basque is definitely a language that carries immense importance, and the Basque people deserve their independence.
Native to the Southern Caucasus Mountains region, the Kartvelian languages are certainly amongst the oldest still in use. They consist of Georgian, Svan, Zan, Mingrelian, and Laz. They are one of the world’s primary language families, and are thoroughly unique in many aspects, surviving in this mountainous region for countless centuries.
The geographical isolation of the tribes that lived here, allowed for undisturbed development of unique societies that would later dominate the region. The Georgian language has its earliest written form dating to 430 AD. But the language itself is certainly much older. This language family is not related to any other in the world, and it has roughly 5.2 million speakers around the world. Its earliest reconstructed form is called Proto-Kartvelian, reaching far back in time and showing certain borrowings and influences on Proto-Indo-European, even if it predates it, telling us that it had contact with the Indo-European nomads.
Tamil is a part of the Dravidian languages, and is spoken by the Tamil people, who are native to the southernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. It is also one of the oldest surviving classical languages that are in use today. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu it is the official language, adding to the wealth of dialects and languages that are in use in India.
Ancient Tamil inscription on walls Thanjavur Brihadeeshwarar temple in India. (Symphoney Symphoney / CC BY 2.0 )
Tamil has no connection ‘genetically’ to the dominant Hindi language of India, which is Indo-European, and also, can’t be understood by Hindi people. It has around 75 million native speakers worldwide. It has a long tradition that survives to this day, and its earliest written form dates to 300 BC, making it over 2000 years old.
We cannot focus only on the languages whose age is determined by their earliest written form. One great example of this are the oldest languages of remote tribes of Siberia and the Far East of Russia. This is a truly enormous expanse, which means that many of these languages are isolates – an astonishing phenomenon that shows us the diversity of the wild Siberia.
Paleo-Siberian languages include: the Ket language, Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages, Nivkh and Yukaghir. These in turn consist of many separate regional forms and dialects. It is certain that these languages predate by far the dominant languages of modern Siberia, like Russian, Tungusic, and Turkic languages.
Even though these simple nomadic tribes never developed a written system of their own, it should not be overlooked that their languages are very, very old, which allowed them to thrive and develop for centuries in the wild landscapes of the world’s remotest region – Siberia.
Another language without an early written form, but boasting anciency and absolute uniqueness – Ainu. It is the language of the Ainu people who are native to Northern Japan, and predate the modern Japanese people who settled the islands. Ainu is a language isolate, having no connections whatsoever to Japanese. Some small connections with the Paleo-Siberian languages exist.
Ainu people and their language are endangered today, and they show distinct genetic and cultural traits in comparison to the Japanese people. They show us a clear glimpse into the ancient world that predates the establishment of modern nations. And even though their language never had a written system of its own, its advanced age cannot be argued.
Arabic language belongs to the group of Semitic languages, and is certainly amongst the oldest still in use. Even though it encompasses many sub-groups and variants, it is unified in a standardized form of Classical Arabic – a lingua franca of the Arab world. Amongst the oldest written languages, some inscriptions date to 125 AD.
Ancient Arabic writings on papyrus. ( Andrea Izzotti / Adobe stock)
It is a great example of how a language of a powerful conquering nation can establish itself over a wide area and survive for centuries in its original form. With its spread, it influenced many modern languages all across the world, leaving loanwords everywhere it went.
Part of the Northwest Semitic group of the Afro-Asiatic languages, Aramaic is certainly amongst the oldest languages in the world. It boasts roughly 3,100 years of written history, placing it at the top of our list. It was originally the language of the Aramean tribe, which spread over the regions of Levant, Syria, and Mesopotamia, and already had established kingdoms around 1000 BC.
Ancient Aramaic (one of the oldest languages) writings from Syriac Sertâ book script. Mt. Sinai, Egypt. 11th century. ( Public domain )
Even in the ancient times, it was used as a royal, prestigious language in some of the oldest courts of the world. Royal Inscriptions in Aramaic date to the 10th century BC, solidifying its position as one of the oldest languages still in use. It is also written in a highly unique Aramaic script, the earliest form of which was based off of Phoenician.
We all know that the Chinese history spans far back in time, and was always amongst the most advanced civilizations on Earth. The Chinese language is equally old, and is also amongst the most unique languages of the world. It is highly complex – both in the written and the spoken form – and its writing system can consist of up to 100,000 different symbols! It truly is one of a kind. The earliest written form of Chinese dates to 1250 BC, making Chinese one of the oldest living languages.
Chinese writings on wood pallets. ( kravka / Adobe stock)
Persian, also known as Farsi, is a widely used, and a very old Indo-European language, belonging to the Indo-Iranian subdivision. It boasts around 70 million native speakers around the world. It is attested in written form as early as 6th century BC, but its history is known to reach further than that. Old Persian was the language of the Achaemenid Empire, which lasted from 550 to 330 BC, and later in the Sasanian Empire as well. The oldest writing dates to the rule of Darius I – and are written in cuneiform.
- Ten of the Most Critically Endangered Languages in the World
- How to Invent a Tolkien-Style Language: Ancient Languages Inspire Modern Movies
- The Origins of Human Language: One of the Hardest Problems in Science
Old Persian (one of the oldest languages) cuneiform from Darius the Great tomb. (Diego Delso / CC BY-SA )
Gaeilge is the Irish branch of the Goidelic languages, a part of the Celtic family of Indo-European languages. While not as old as some of the other languages on our list, Irish Gaelic is certainly amongst the oldest. The earliest writings in Irish date to 4th century AD, in the form of the linear Ogham scripts.
After centuries of brutal suppression in Ireland by the English occupiers, Irish is today once again accepted and is experiencing a revival. One of the largest surviving Celtic languages, it is a great insight into the history of the Irish people and Europe as well.
Example of ancient Irish Gaelic in Book of Ballymote, explaining the Ogham scripts. ( Public domain )
The Final Word About Words
Languages are a universal tool for all of us. They can be a bridge to span all cultural differences, and finding a mutual way of communication is known to bring together the most diverse of nations. It is also the biggest part of our identity – a clear sign to whom and where we belong. So nourish your language, and pride yourself on your mother tongue – after all, it is a crucial part of you.
Top image: Representation of ancient writing of one of the oldest languages in a book. Source: Andrey Lavrishchev / Adobe stock