the oldest language in earth

This is something of a difficult question to answer because it requires such careful consideration of how to define “language still spoken.”  English, for example, is reasonably typical among languages at roughly 1,500 years old.  However, English of the Low Middle Ages would sound more like modern Frisian than modern English, and spoken mutual intelligibility with Modern English probably wouldn’t happen until 1450 or so, depending on the region and the savvy of the listener.

(If you want to object, “Hey, I can understand Chaucer just fine!,” great!  Now compare that to the contemporaneous Gawain and the Green Knight and you’ll understand why I mentioned regional differences.)

Here, I am going to make reasonable estimations about what you can call a very old language that has remained reasonably the same over millennia.

Sanskrit
Sanskrit is slightly similar to Latin in that its use and standard form has been preserved largely for its use in religious and scholarly discussion.  Unlike Latin, it has been preserved for quotidian conversation by a small, but healthy, population.  (Properly speaking, Sanskrit likely died in the spoken form but was later revived.)  The “classical” form of Sanskrit arose around 500 BCE, derived from its Vedic precursor that extends back another thousand years.

Basque
Basque is the eponymous language of an insular population in the Pyrenees region, most famous for the group ETA which occasionally makes headlines by bombing for governmental autonomy.  The language is perhaps most famous for being a confounded mystery, as there is no satisfying, complete explanation for how it evolved.  While I can’t vouch for how much or how little it’s changed, the Basque language pre-exists the Roman occupation of Iberia (mid-1st century BCE).

Hebrew and Aramaic
Aramaic is a family of related dialects that largely arose as a common form of Hebrew, somewhat like how the Romance Languages evolved from Vulgar Latin.  Hebrew was preserved through Jewish religious practice and scholarship, but as a spoken language went into periods of dormancy.  Aramaic has been continuously spoken, but generally in such insular communities or contexts (such as Syriac, a liturgical language of Eastern Christian rites) that its dialects are often mutually unintelligible.  Taken as a whole, though, these languages could be said to be around 3000 years old.

FUN FACT
Unfortunately, I know little about the history of East Asian languages, so I’m sure I’m doing most them a disservice by excluding them.  However, I was once quite surprised to learn that Classical Chinese did not exhibit tonality, and that the evolution of tones did not take place until after the heyday of classical Chinese Taoism.

Thanks for the A2A! In my opinion, there is no linguistically useful sense in which any language spoken today is “older” than any other.

Probably a more meaningful and interesting question is “which languages have been the most conservative, or slowest to borrow or invent new words or features, so that modern speakers and readers can understand older related languages?” You might see

my answer to “What language has changed the least?”

for some thoughts on that matter. Modern Tamil is certainly a contender in that area, as are Modern Hebrew, modern Mandarin Chinese, modern Persian, and modern Greek, all of which derive from ancient languages with recorded forms that are intelligible to various degrees to educated modern speakers.

Here’s why it doesn’t really makes sense to call one modern language “older” than another:

  • All developmentally normal humans use spoken language, and are widely thought to have done so for the entire history and prehistory of behaviorally modernhumans.*
  • All languages used today are believed to descend more-or-less continously from pre-existing forms of language. That is to say, there are no examples of brand-new languages springing into use*, besides some constructed languages such as Esperanto, which have very few native speakers and have documented origins in the last couple centuries.
  • Contact languages like pidgins or creole languages are interesting cases because they clearly result from the combining/merging of multiple languages which were formerly isolated from each other–but there’s still a clear sense of continuity with the (multiple) parent languages.


A lot of the claims of language age come down to issues of naming, as

Gowrisankar Itharaju rightly highlights

. For example,

  • If we call the language spoken by Alfred the Great “Old English”, then “English” is at least 1200 years old.
  • On the other hand, if we call his language “Anglo-Saxon” and consider “English” to be a creole which sprung from “Anglo-Saxon” + “Old Norse” + “Norman French” around 1000-1200 AD… then English is only 800 years old.


The situation with Tamil, as with other languages with a long and written history (Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Chinese) is that people tend to see the ancient languages and their modern descendants as the “same.” Often this is influenced by religious or cultural veneration for the ancient forms of language.

It’s easier to think about the futility of ascribing an age to a language in the context of unwritten languages.

Proto-Uto-Aztecan

, for instance, was never written down by its speakers, although some writing survives from the roughly contemporaneous

Old Chinese

. This doesn’t mean that modern

Mandarin Chinese

is any older than modern

Nahuatl

(spoken by over a million people in Mexico).


* Deaf people are a very interesting and important category which I’m neglecting here. Because they often don’t have deaf parents or communities around them, and have often been discriminated against and institutionalized, there are several recorded examples of newly-invented sign languages.

 

  

Michael Billips

All of them and none of them.

Language only really exists in the present.

That’s the easiest answer without getting the most technical. Language changes constantly, so there is never a language that is old unless you mean a dead language preserved in books. The oldest recorded language is Sumerian with inscriptions from about 3300 BCE (5,300 years ago). So you could say that’s oldest language we have preserved. This is very different, though, from nationalistically claiming that your language is “old” or older than all other languages as if to say your ethnicity is stronger and not prone to the change that happens to all other lesser ethnicities. This is absurd.

What people usually call the “same” language, like Sanskrit or English, is a language that has changed drastically over many centuries with much more variation and many more dialects than was preserved for us. If the definition of two language varieties being the same language is mutual intelligibility (a pragmatic, but not the only definition), then Old English and Middle English are not English. It would be better to call them by the slightly varied names they used at the time (which could be mostly a spelling difference), but even that may look more similar and recognizable to us than the languages themselves were. A modern name used by scholars to identify previous stages of language spoken in the same geographic location does not indicate that that language would be familiar to modern speakers of the conveniently appropriated name.

Now if you did want to get your hands dirty with being technical about phonology, then you might come up with an index of the rate of change a particular language has undergone, given various pressures through time. Icelandic speakers can understand Old Norse as well as modern English speakers can understand the King James Bible (maybe better sometimes), yet this written Old Norse is about twice as old as the KJV. With a pretty heft corpus study, analyzing sound change, syntactic moves, and semantic shift you might be able to come up with some empirically reliable index of which languages have changed more. The one that’s changed the least could then be considered the “oldest”, even though that’s kind of an awkward way to say it. I guarantee you, though, that the winner would be a language with very little social pressures, population movements, or societal changes and not any of the major spoken languages of today, like Tamil or Hebrew. (Hebrew is laughable because it was (re)constructed at the turn of the 20th century by Ben-Yehuda for use in schools during the First Aliyah.) Theoretically, the most unchanging language would probably be one in the depths of the Amazon or Papua New Guinea, but without written records there would be no way to confirm that. The least changing recorded language then does present an interesting question humanity has yet to answer.

  

Eva Nowack

Well, that’s an awkward question to ask – kind of like, which is the oldest species. Language evolves similarly in many ways, and changes perpetually, so it’s hard to define where one language began. For the sake of the argument I’ll assume by “oldest”, we mean the language where we can go the furthest back in time and find a version of it, that is somewhat mutually intelligible with its current form. So, languages that are already dead and gone are automatically disqualified.

Given that, I’m going to disagree with previous answers and say yes. Icelandic might be a runner-up, as it’s still very close to Old Norse, but among all languages I can think of right now, Tamil appears to be the oldest (again, by the stated definition).

Edit:

 

The question breaks down when you look at it closely.

What do you mean “oldest”?

The first language spoken? We have no idea. It ceased being spoken millennia ago, and we have no records of it.

The first language we have written records of? Sumerian.

Then you get into more complicated sub-questions. Oldest living language? What counts as being the same language? A modern English speaker can make sense of Shakespeare, so that’s 400 years old. A trained English speaker can figure out Chaucer, that’s 600 years or so. A modern English speaker can’t make hide nor hair of Beowulf, so obviously Old English is too old, even though there’s direct continuity. If that counts anyway, then almost all languages are descended from older forms in a continuous way, so Old English to Proto-Germanic, PGer to Proto-Indo-European, PIE to Nostratic, to …?

Or do you mean oldest language from where we have written records and a modern use? Sanskrit, Chinese and Hebrew all make strong claims. Does it count if the use is (or was for an extended time) mainly or solely liturgical?

Does Coptic, as the descendant of Ancient Egyptian, count?

What about the oldest language where people can still understand it as their first language? In which case Icelandic might count, as they study one thousand year old Old Norsesagas in school, as English students study Shakespeare.


 

Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world with proven record of its archeology, history, people and many scientific proofs. Archaeological evidence points archeologists from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) unearthed 169 clay urns containing human skulls, skeletons, bones, husks, grains of rice, charred rice and celts of the Neolithicperiod, 3,800 years ago. The ASI archaeologists have proposed that the script used at that site is “very rudimentary” Tamil. About 60,000 of the one million odd inscriptions in India are in Tamil Nadu. More than 57% of the epigraphical inscriptions, about 57,000, found by the Archaeological Survey of India in India are in Tamil.

Archeological Survey Of India Found A 2,500 Yr-Old-City Near Madurai, And It’s Full Of Riches!

The excavation at Keezhadi, near Madurai, has been carried out at two localities in the farm. “Both the places have yielded different items and we presume they represent a social hierarchy,” says Amarnath. The bigger of the two locations with more number of trenches is said to be a settlement of educated rich people, as many jewellery, fine game stones, semi-precious stones and a dozen Tamil Brahmi inscriptions have been found. “Even the brick structures appear more refined.” Beads of agate, Carnelian and quartz indicate that they had trade link with countries like Rome. The Tamil Brahmi letters found on pottery is all names of individuals such as, Thisan, Aadhan and Udhiran. “They are typical Sangam Age Tamil names,” says Amarnath.
Archaeological excavation at Keezhadi village near Madurai reveals a 2500 year old human settlement

Book to read
Dravidian (Tamil) is the language of the Indus Valley Writing: A study of the most ancient Tamil Language: Dr Clyde Winters: 9781503117204: Amazon.com: Books

  

Alexandre Coutu

All languages spoken today are the result of slow and gradual evolution all the way from the very first meaningful grunts humans put together. There is no point in time where a language is no longer the same language and if language X is still called X 2,000 years later, it’s purely for historical, cultural or political reasons — not for linguistic ones. The factual answer to which is the oldest language is that there is no such thing as an older language because all languages are equally old.
 
However, if you mean to ask which languages have had a slower rate of evolution, such that a modern speaker could find texts comprehensible up to an earlier date than in other languages, then that’s a different kind of question.
 
First of all, we have virtually no way to know the pronunciation of languages that are more than a few centuries old. Consequently, even though modern speakers of Chinese could read older Chinese texts, it’s unlikely they would understand anything if they heard it spoken as it then was — so we have to agree to rely on written texts only, for lack of a better solution.
 
Secondly, we have to forget about the linguistic tags that are attached to texts — Old Norse might be legible for a modern day Scandinavian speaker while Old English might be less comprehensible for a speaker of today’s English.
 
Thirdly, it’s difficult to properly compute the level of comprehension of the average person, especially if you also want to factor in cultural differences that could account for a population having a better understanding of older texts that otherwise display a similar degree of variation. For instance, if modern Arab speakers of whichever dialect can understand texts from the 8th century, it’s because these texts are part of their education. Are Chinese students shown and taught ancient texts? Tamil speakers? Icelandic speakers? I have no idea, but it most probably plays a serious role in their level of understanding.
Lastly, the rate of evoluation varies not only from language to language, but also through time, ie. a language might have had a slow rate of evolution in the last 1000 years, but that rate might have been much faster during the previous 1000 years. In short, there is little use in determining which language has had the slowest rate of evolution in the last millenia or two, even if the answer to that question were easy to figure out.

  

Stuart J Walton

What is the oldest language still spoken today?

Without a doubt, Martu Wangka,* which is spoken by about 1,100 Martu (Mardu) people in and around the Gibson Desert and the Great Sandy Desert area of Western Australia.

Map of Aboriginal tribal boundaries with Martu region ringed

As the diagram below shows, our language (modern English) evolved, coped, adapted and adopted many of the the outside influences of the Celts, the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans etc. This process took place over approximately 2200 years.


But imagine if you lived in a land where there were no outsiders coming into your domain? Ever.

Master of all he surveys

Imagine living in an unchanging landscape of limited features, using tools and technology tens of thousands of years old, your only companions being your tribe or others closely related through marriage, or clanship, your only ceremonies being ritualised dance and monotone music.

Purnululu National Park: Tribal lands of the Martu

Corroboree Central Australia, 1901

Aboriginal religion and art were elements of the

Dreamtime

and there were no separate sects or errant Luthers questioning its tenets and beliefs. Aboriginal lore, the stories of Dreamtime and Creation remain much the same as they were tens of thousands of years ago. Despite dramatic changes to Aboriginal art in my lifetime, their art (as below) and religion have also not changed for tens of thousands of years

Imagine, nothing changes. There is no need for new vocabulary, no protestants, no transubstantiation, no lacquer, perspective, camel’s-hair brush, or even the need for permanent shelter.

“Australian Sistine Chapel” recently discovered Gabarnmung rock shelter, dated at 28,000 years
(see

Gabarnmung

)

Central Australian nomadic Aborigine are a people whose language and lifestyle, have remained relatively unchanged for the past 45,000 years.

In a state of nature with all their worldly goods

With little outside influence in an essentially unchanging landscape, knowing every minute detail of their environment and with little outside contact, wouldn’t today’s Martu still be understandable to their ancestors of  10,000 years ago?

WWW.WEDONTNEEDAMAP.COM.AU

Like Aboriginal tools and weapons, language had reached a level of utility suitable for all their needs and, with no outside influences, no changes to philosophy, technology or the adoption of new food sources (farming, line fishing), there was little reason to introduce new vocabulary or structure.

Modern day (faithful) reproductions of the Aboriginal toolkit

The Bungle Bungles, one of the most remote and fascinating places on the planet and only a short distance from the lands of the Martu

Again, I’m no scholar, so I can’t explain why other tribes, in other parts of Australia, speak equally ancient languages totally different both in grammar and vocabulary from Martu Wangka.

In the mid 1970’s I worked in that region, on the Mt Newman Iron Ore Project, spending weekends off in the Bungle Bungles, following the dried river beds, picking through the stones and fossils.
I feel connected to that land.

Realistically, my “world’s oldest language” theory could be equally applied to any of the dozens of  inland Australian aboriginal tribes.
They all match the above profile.
(tell me more!)

*Translates as “our tongue” I chose the Martu because of their geographical isolation. The last “undiscovered tribe” in that region were dragged into the modern world in 1964, just as I started high school. It was big news at the time, like modern-day first exposure tribes in the Amazon.

  

Ernest W. Adams

Coptic is the religious language of the Coptic Christians of Egypt. It is no longer a cradle tongue, but they use it in services just as Jews used Hebrew in services before Israel was founded. It has changed a lot, but its roots are in ancient Egyptian, the language of the hieroglyphs. So it’s probably about 5000 years old.

  

Alioune Ngom

The “Click Languages” in Southern Africa are among (if not) the oldest languages still spoken today… See the World’s languages traced back to single African mother tongue: scientists [1]

“Do some of today’s languages still hold a whisper of the ancient mother tongue spoken by the first modern humans? Many linguists say language changes far too fast for that to be possible. But a new genetic study underlines the extreme antiquity of a special group of languages, raising the possibility that their distinctive feature was part of the ancestral human mother tongue.

They are the click languages of southern Africa. About 30 survive, spoken by peoples like the San, traditional hunters and gatherers, and the Khwe, who include hunters and herders.

Each language has a set of four or five click sounds, which are essentially double consonants made by sucking the tongue down from the roof of the mouth. Outside of Africa, the only language known to use clicks is Damin, an extinct aboriginal language in Australia that was taught only to men for initiation rites.

Some of the Bantu-speaking peoples who reached southern Africa from their homeland in western Africa some 2,000 years ago have borrowed certain clicks from the Khwe, one use being to substitute for consonants in taboo words.

There are reasons to assume that the click languages may be very old. One is that the click speakers themselves, particularly a group of hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, belong to an extremely ancient genetic lineage, according to analysis of their DNA. They are called the Ju|’hoansi, with the upright bar indicating a click. (”Ju|’hoansi” is pronounced like ”ju-twansi” except that the ”tw” is a click sound like the ”tsk, tsk” of disapproval.)

All human groups are equally old, being descended from the same ancestral population. But geneticists can now place ethnic groups on a family tree of humankind. Groups at the ends of short twigs, the ones that split only recently from earlier populations, are younger, in a genealogical sense, than those at the ends of long branches. Judged by mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element passed down in the female line, the Ju|’hoansis’ line of descent is so ancient that it goes back close to the very root of the human family tree.

Most of the surviving click speakers live in southern Africa. But two small populations, the Hadzabe and the Sandawe, live near Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, in eastern Africa. Two geneticists from Stanford, Dr. Alec Knight and Dr. Joanna Mountain, recently analyzed the genetics of the Hadzabe to figure out their relationship to their fellow click speakers, the Ju|’hoansi.

The Hadzabe, too, have an extremely ancient lineage that also traces back close to the root of the human family tree, the Stanford team reports today in the journal Current Biology. But the Hadzabe lineage and that of the Ju|’hoansi spring from opposite sides of the root. In other words, the Hadzabe and the Ju|’hoansi have been separate peoples since close to the dawn of modern human existence.

The Stanford team compared them with other extremely ancient groups like the Mbuti of Zaire and the Biaka pygmies of Central African Republic and found the divergence between the Hadzabe and the Ju|’hoansi might be the oldest known split in the human family tree.

Unless each group independently invented click languages at some later time, that finding implies that click languages were spoken by the very ancient population from which the Hadzabe and the Ju|’hoansi descended. ”The divergence of those genetic lineages is among the oldest on earth,” Dr. Knight said. ”So one could certainly make the inference that clicks were present in the mother tongue.”

If so, the modern humans who left Africa some 40,000 years ago and populated the rest of the world might have been click speakers who later lost their clicks. Australia, where the Damin click language used to be spoken, is one of the first places outside Africa known to have been reached by modern humans.

But the antiquity of clicks, if they are indeed extremely ancient, raises a serious puzzle. Joseph Greenberg of Stanford University, the great classifier of the world’s languages, put all the click languages in a group he called Khoisan. But Sandawe and Hadzane, the language of the Hadzabe, are what linguists call isolates. They are unlike each other and every other known language. Apart from their clicks, they have very little in common even with the other Khoisan languages.

That the Hadzabe and the Ju|’hoansi differ as much in their language as in their genetics is a reflection of the same fact. They are extremely ancient, and there has been a long time for both their language and their genetics to diverge. The puzzle is why they should have retained their clicks when everything else in their languages has changed.

Dr. Knight suggested that clicks might have survived because in the savanna, where most click speakers live, the sounds allow hunters to coordinate activity without disturbing prey. Whispered speech that uses just clicks sounds more like branches creaking than human talk. Clicks make up more than 40 percent of the language and suffice for hunters to convey their meanings, Dr. Knight said.

Dr. Anthony Traill, an expert on click languages at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, said he did not find the hunting idea very plausible.

”Clicks are acoustically high-impact sounds for mammalian ears,” Dr. Traill said, ”probably the worst sounds to use if you are trying to conceal your presence.”

But he agreed that it was a puzzle to understand why clicks had been retained for so long. He has found that in the ordinary process of language change, certain types of click can be replaced by nonclick consonants, but he has never seen the reverse occur. ”It is highly improbable that a fully fledged click system could arise from nonclick precursors,” Dr. Traill said.

Because languages change so fast, it is difficult for linguists to measure their age. Indeed, most think that languages more than a few thousand years old can rarely be dated. But if Dr. Traill is right, that clicks can be lost but not reinvented, that implies that clicks may be a very ancient component of language.

Dr. Bonnie Sands, a linguist at Northern Arizona University, said click sounds were not particularly hard to make. All children can make them. Dr. Sands saw no reason why clicks could not have been invented independently many times and, perhaps, lost in all areas of the world except Africa.

”There is nothing to be gained by assuming that clicks must have been invented only once,” she said, ”or in presuming that certain types of phonological systems are more primordial than others.”

Dr. Traill said that although a single click was not difficult, rattling off a whole series is another matter, because they are like double consonants. ”Fluent articulation of clicks in running speech is by any measure difficult,” he said. ”It requires more articulatory work, like taking two stairs at a time.”

Given the laziness of the human tongue, why have clicks been retained by click speakers while everything else changed? ”That is a major problem,” Dr. Traill said. ”All the expectations would be that they would have succumbed to the pressures of change that affect all languages. I do not know the answer.”

A leading theory to explain the emergence of behaviorally modern humans 50,000 years ago is that some genetic change enabled one group of people to perfect modern speech. The new power of communication, according to an archaeologist, Dr. Richard Klein, made possible the advanced behaviors that begin to be reflected in the archaeological record of the period.

The Stanford team calculated a date of 112,000 years, plus or minus 42,000 years, for the separation of the Hadzabe and Ju|’hoansi populations. If this means that modern speech existed that long ago, it does not appear to fit with Dr. Klein’s thesis.

But Dr. Knight said the estimate was very approximate and added that he believed the new findings about click language were fully compatible with Dr. Klein’s theory. Clicks might have been part of the first fully articulate human language that appeared among some group of early humans 50,000 years ago. Those with the language gene would have outcompeted all other groups, so that language become universal in the surviving human population.

That would explain why the metaphorical Adam hit it off with Eve. They just clicked.

Photo: Members of a branch of the San people living in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park in southern Africa are among those who speak a click language. Each language has a set of four or five different click sounds. (Associated Press)”

Source: In Click Languages, an Echo of the Tongues of the Ancients

Other “oldest languages: Oldest Spoken Language – Google Search

Footnotes

[1] World’s languages traced back to single African mother tongue: scientists

  

Olivier Simon

Arabic is quite old and predates the Quran. So, in theory, a cultivated speaker of Literary Arabic should be able to go back 1500 years into time (in fact, that’s not so easy, Quranic Arabic sounds like Chaucerian to a speaker of modern English).
Greek is old, but the pronounciation and the grammar have changed a lot, so modern Greeks could not communicate with Ancient Greeks.
The Chinese writing is very old too; in China, the ideograms were modernized in the XX° century, but the former literary language is still taught to teens (just like some teenagers can study Latin or Old Greek in the Western world), who can then understand texts up to the V° century after JC. However, be aware that this is just a writing system whose actual pronounciation (which varied extensively over the centuries) is still a matter of scholarly research. It is as if, in English, we would write “heafod” but pronounce it “head”.
I have heard that Sanskrit is still spoken daily in some villages in India. If yes, this would be actually the oldest living language. I just wonder if modern speakers can really fully understand texts from past millenia, for Sanskrit has a very complicated grammar and a huge vocabulary.
Because of comments, let me add further information.
The Kalash language has indeed preserved some very archaical features (if we compare Hindi to Sanskrit), however there is no mutual intelligibility with Sanskrit and it must be considered as separate language.
Tamil, like Greek, has a very old literature, but has undergone several changes over the milenia, so that it cannot be seriously said as being the oldest living language on Earth. Since all languages all around the world necessarily have an ancestor (cf. the answer by Matthew Moppett) and that there was mutual intelligibility from parents to children, then every language on Earth is the oldest one if we follow such criteria….
Hebrew is partly close to Biblical Hebrew for some features (ex: morphology) but very different for other things, like syntax (heavily influenced by European languages) and pronunciation. So… it is a little like Greek… a speaker of modern Hebrew can make out a Biblical text (but remember that what we call the Hebrew alphabet is in fact an offshoot of the Aramaic alphabet, that the Jews began to use instead of the Palaeo-Hebrew alphabet in the III° century BCE) but would not be able to talk to a Jew of Biblical times.

  

Aishwarya Lakshmi

Sumerian
The language of southern Mesopotamia can date back as  far as the 26th to 31st century BCE. In fact, Sumerian’s wedge-shaped  alphabet influenced the region’s other alphabets for roughly 3,000  years. Eventually, Sumerian was replaced with Semitic Akkadian—which  causes some lists to mark Sumerian and Akkadian as their own separate  languages. For the sake of our list, we’re keeping the two together.
Sumerian had pretty much died out around the seventh  century BCE—with only a select few bragging about being able to read it.  Then, it saw a resurgence a few centuries later during the time of  Christ, bringing about a fourth era of Sumerian, before it finally died  out.
Egyptian
A perfect example of the mutation of a language,  Egyptian started out in the Nile valley around 3000 BCE and evolved over  five eras—lasting until the end of the Coptic form around the 17th  century CE when Arabic spread across the region. Coptic can still be  heard as a holy language in the Coptic Church. However, most of us know  Egyptian as hieroglyphics and some of history’s greatest mysteries and  discoveries.
Like Sumerian, Egyptian saw a bit of resurgence after its initial demise. Egyptian language was in practice for 4,000 years,  but Theodosius and the Byzantine Empire effectively killed it in CE 391  with the closing of pagan places of worship. It wouldn’t be until the  late 1700s and early 1800s when the Rosetta Stone was discovered and  translated that Egyptian and its rich history would start to unfold for  the public again.
Sanskrit
Sanskrit is a significant language in the Indian  cultural sphere and beyond. It is said to have influenced both Hindi and  Punjabi. Sanskrit’s history is mainly broken into two eras: Vedic  Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit. The Rig Veda, a collection of hymns in  Vedic Sanskrit, are the oldest known Sanskrit documents that date back  as far as 1500 to 1700 BCE.
Sanskrit’s influence extends beyond India and into  Europe—with many considering it to be “The mother of European  languages.” Not only is Sanskrit considered a perfect language to many  scholars, it is believed to be perfect for computers as well.
Tamil
Like Sanskrit, Tamil is an old-world language that is  still in active use in India and the surrounding region. The earliest  Tamil writings known to us date back to the 5th century BCE,  and it is the official language of India’s Tamil Nadu state. The Tamil  spoken in India is usually completely different from that spoken in  nearby Sri Lanka. After undergoing three significant eras of evolution  to its written and spoken language, Tamil has been an evolving regional  language since the 17th century.
Tamil’s legacy was sealed as an official classical language of India in 2004. Experts cited its dual spoken and written language  levels that still thrive while Sanskrit is mostly a dead language.
Hebrew
Another former dead language, Hebrew dates back to at least 3,000 years ago. That’s more than 1,000 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls. By the Middle  Ages, Hebrew had faced a sharp decline in common use outside of Jewish  synagogues and temples. Then, in the 1800s and 1900s Hebrew grew once  again in Europe and Palestine when it moved from being a religious  language to a common tongue used by the people in the Palestine/Israel  region. Now, it is the official language of Israel and firmly  established as a modern tongue of the world.
Like Hebrew’s regional language partners, Arabic and Aramaic, Hebrew has no vowels in its alphabet.

  

Paul Barthmaier

Part of the problem, too, with this question is that languages are constantly changing. Much like the theory of natural selection, languages create, borrow and redesign new grammatical structures and shed others. But even more troubling is the naming of languages. Over time a language can be unintelligible to another language with the same name. Think English vs Old English. And if that isn’t enough, a language name like Chinese is used as a cover term for several languages that exist synchronically, some of which are mutually unintelligible!

  

Judith Meyer

The question of ‘the youngest’ language with native speakers is similarly problematic, because of the fluid border between language and dialect. For example, while Yugoslavia existed, it was considered that Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian were dialects of one language, but now they are insisting that they are separate languages and they are implementing reforms to underline the differences.

Maybe Lojban or Klingon would qualify as the newest languages with native speakers – I know there are parents trying to raise their kids as native speakers of these, though yet uncertain as to their success. Esperanto already has tens of thousands of native speakers, some of which I know personally. Also consider the case of Hebrew, which didn’t have any native speakers until fairly recently. Would you say Modern Hebrew is a separate language from Biblical Hebrew?

  

Jose Geraldo Gouvea

No spoken language that is alive is actually too old. Spoken language changes a lot over time, rendering ancient texts unreadable. You won’t find any example of a non-diglossic language with a written record older than a few hundred years that is still spoken more or less the same way it used to be. This is even truer for widely spoken languages. But then come the caveats.

  1. Languages spoken by a relatively small population in an homogeneous territory not terribly affected by wars and plagues tend be conservative and, in some cases, very old texts are still close to modern spoken language, even in grammar. I am not an expert on this subject, but I have read in many places that Icelandic, Lithuanian and Georgian are quite archaic for this reason.
  2. Some languages have a very conservative standard that allows for a continued intelligibility of very old texts. Portuguese and Spanish, two languages I know very well (as you probably have guessed) are like this. Anyone with a higher education can read mediaeval Portuguese from the XV century onwards and if you really have a talent for languages you can read up to the XII century. This is even more so in Spanish, which is, afaik, readable by high-school students from the XV century onwards and by people with a higher education since the inception of the language. However, both languages have undergone extreme spelling reforms, which mean that the actual texts may not be readily readable. AFAIK, this is also the case of Danish: prolonged contact with Germany, Poland and the Netherlands influenced Danish phonology in many ways, but these changes are not reflected in the spelling system.
  3. Some languages are diglossic: they don’t seem to change, but that’s only because the standard written language is entirely another beast compared to spoken language. This is the case of German and Italian, used to be the case of Greek (katharrevoussa).
  4. Some diglossic languages are extreme, as they preserve their former standard even after actually spoken language has diverged up to becoming unintelligible with it. All basic books on Linguistics mention three classic cases of extremely conservative diglossic cultures (in order of recency): Arabic, Tibetan and Tamil.
  5. Some languages have been revived after centuries (or even millenia) of oblivion: Cornish, Sanskrit and Hebrew.
  6. Some languages appear to be older than they actually are because they have been reformed to look older, by readopting ancient words replacing loanwords. Two often mentioned cases are Romanian (retconned to edit out Slavic loanwords replacing them with French and Italian roots) and Turkish (language policy replaced thousands of words of Arabic and Persian origin with words taken from the other Turkic languages of Central Asia, though I am not sure if this really worked).
  7. Some languages look misleadingly young because they have had spelling reforms that gave them a facelift. Without its sweeping reforms over the XX century, modern Portuguese would not look very different from XVII century Portuguese, for instance, and the same can be said of Irish, Welsh, French, Russian and Romanian. In fact, the cases of Welsh, French and Romanian are quite interesting. Old Welsh spelling was affected by English printers, who didn’t have enough K’s to print a Bible in Welsh, so they replaced them with C’s, much to the chagrin of the Welsh, but they eventually got used to it. The change, among many others, helped set Welsh apart from the other Celtic languages. French adopted a spelling reform that reflected the pronunciation of the region of Paris, but that accent was only a minority of actual French speakers. However, the standard adopted helped set French apart from Occitan and also from English (which has a huge corpus of French loan words, which follow ancient French spelling). Romanian used to be written in Cyrillic with a traditional spelling. The switch to Latin helped set Romanian apart from its Slavic neighbours, broke away with the past and provided a phonetic (therefore “new”) spelling.

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