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Exploring the world’s oldest languages and their origins

Among the oldest still-spoken languages, Hebrew and Arabic are significant. Written evidence of these languages dates back around 3,000 years...


Exploring the world’s oldest languages and their origins

The world is home to over 7,100 languages today, with nearly 40% endangered. These languages span millennia of human history, making the search for the oldest languages a fascinating endeavor.

Early written languages such as Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian, which used cuneiform script, date back at least 4,600 years. Egyptian hieroglyphs, like those in Pharaoh Seth-Peribsen’s tomb, contain some of the earliest-known complete sentences. Although these languages are extinct, they hold the title of the oldest with clear written records.

Among the oldest still-spoken languages, Hebrew and Arabic are significant. Written evidence of these languages dates back around 3,000 years. They belong to the Afroasiatic language family, which traces its roots back 10,000 to 20,000 years, making it one of the oldest language families, despite debates over the precise timelines.

READ ALSO: Nigerian elites and the Nigerian languages, by Dr Hauwa Mohammed Sani

Other ancient languages like Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tamil are subjects of ongoing debate. Chinese likely emerged from Proto-Sino-Tibetan around 4,500 years ago, with the earliest written records dating back about 3,300 years. Sanskrit’s written records date to 1500-1200 BCE, featured in ancient Hindu texts, though it is no longer a first language today. Tamil, spoken by about 85 million people, has literature dating back at least 2,000 years, with the Tolkāppiyam potentially as old as 7,000-2,800 years.


Egypt, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, used Egyptian Coptic as its earliest indigenous language. Written records trace back to 3400 BC, and Coptic remained the predominant language in Egypt until the late 17th century AD. Today, it survives primarily as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in Egypt.


Sanskrit’s earliest form is found in the Rigveda, a sacred Hindu text. Revered as the ‘language of the gods’ in Hinduism, Sanskrit is crucial for understanding ancient Indian history, scriptures, and philosophy. It has influenced many modern Indian languages, such as Hindi, Bengali, and Marathi, which borrow extensively from its vocabulary. Key religious texts in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were composed in Sanskrit.


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, Tamil is predominant in Tamil Nadu and holds official status in India. Inscriptions dating back to the 3rd century BC confirm its ancient roots.


Hebrew ceased to be widely spoken around 400 CE but has been maintained as a liturgical language among Jews globally. The 19th and 20th centuries saw a revival of Hebrew with the rise of Zionism, establishing it as the official language of Israel. Modern Hebrew, while different from its Biblical counterpart, allows native speakers to comprehend ancient texts.


Arabic, the language of the Quran, is spoken by approximately 260 million people worldwide. It includes numerous dialects and has influenced languages such as Urdu and Malay. Arabic has also contributed words to English, such as algebra, alcohol, and emir.


Chinese, spoken by approximately 1.2 billion people, belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. It includes numerous complex dialects, with written characters dating back about 3,000 years to the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC). In 1956, the script was simplified to enhance readability and accessibility.


Greek, the official language of Greece and Cyprus, developed in ancient Greece and Asia Minor, now part of Turkey. It has an unbroken tradition of written use spanning over 3,000 years. Today, Greek is spoken by over 15 million people, primarily in Greece and Cyprus, with significant Greek-speaking communities in countries like the United States and Australia.

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