Publish at April 13 2022 Updated April 21 2022

In search of the world's oldest language

... and what's left of it!

Seven million years ago, the first ancestors of the human lineage appeared on Earth. Did they already have an established language that allowed them to communicate then? No doubt. However, impossible, even for the most eminent linguists, archaeologists or historians to date the exact moment when the first human language was used for communicative purposes.

But then how could we estimate what the oldest language in the world is? Are any still spoken today? Today, let's all put ourselves in the shoes of an Indiana Jones of languages and go in search of the world's oldest language!

And in the beginning, writing was

In general, for a language to be known and recognized, it must have left a written record. The difficulty is to be able to distinguish written language from pictograms. Linguistically speaking, as long as these pictograms form sentences, it is assumed that they had an oral use, therefore spoken, so that these pictograms do represent a language. 

In this sense, if we base ourselves on the appearance of writing, we date it to around 3,300 BC almost simultaneously in Mesopotamia (current region of the Middle East, between Iraq, Turkey and Syria) and Egypt.

And the winner is...

The oldest inscription ever found in the world is said to be the Kish Tablet, discovered at Tell al-Uhaymir in present-day Iraq, and is said to feature Sumerian pictographs. It would date from the XXXV century BC!"

Second in the ranking, two centuries later, in 3,300 BC, Narmer's palette (at Nekhen) is composed of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Third place on the podium again goes to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia in an archaic cuneiform form estimated at about 2,900 B.C.

At Umm el-Qa'ab, in Egypt, we find the first written sentence of all time. It is believed to have been written around 2,690 BC.C. and was found in the tomb of Seth-Perisben, a king of the Second Dynasty. 

Certainly, Africa is the cradle of humanity, so it is not surprising that the oldest languages come from this part of the world, however it is in China, between the fifteenth and tenth century BC, that the archaic Chinese language is spoken.C. that the archaic Chinese appears. From the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family, these Chinese characters are in the form of ossicular writing which, as its name suggests, was engraved on bones or scales.

Finally, Mycenaean Greek would be the first spoken European language of which we have been able to find traces. It would date from the sixteenth to twelfth century BC, would be of linear type B., would belong to the Indo-European language family and would have known its source in Greece and Cyprus.

In the fog

The six previous holders of the title of oldest language could however be dethroned by two other contenders: 

  • The tablets of Tartary, in Romania, whose language remains unknown, but it is assumed that they are pictograms. It is said to date from 5,300 B.C.

  • The Jiahu symbols pose the same problem: unknown language, probably pictograms. They were found in China, in the eponymous city (Jiahu) and according to a carbon 14 estimate, they would date from...6,600 BC!!

These data should be taken with care, however, as it remains difficult to confirm their authenticity.

And today?

While the above-mentioned languages are the oldest recognized, they are, however, generally no longer spoken nowadays. In the 21st century, some languages still in frequent use remain veterans in the field.

This is notably the case with Hebrew, which has had its ups and downs, almost completely disappearing in the year 400 CE before making a meteoric rise in the 19th and 20th centuries as a liturgical language for Jews around the world. It is believed to have existed since the 14th century B.C.

Also in the Middle East, Farsi or Persian, currently spoken in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, is believed to have been spoken since 550 B.C.C. 

In Europe, we can mention Nordic languages such as Gaelic (4th century) in Ireland and Scotland, Basque (11th century), in Spain and France or Georgian (4th century).

Finally, how can we not mention Tamil, this Indian language spoken by 85 million people and the official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore and whose first written traces are said to be in the 3rd century BC anyway!

Of course this list is not exhaustive and one could cite a good number of other languages that would not be demerited in this ranking, following the example of Macedonian, Lithuanian, Icelandic, Finnish...

Finally, going in search of the oldest language in the world is a bit of a wild goose chase. It's hard to chase a pipe dream when you know that the oldest language ever spoken was probably not written.

In this sense, the mystery remains. What language did the first human beings on earth speak? Short of Indiana Jones's whip, it's more like the DeLorean from Back to the Future that we'd need to get that answer!"

Sources and Illustrations




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