Languages are like a living, breathing organism. In order to survive, they have to adapt, to change and sometimes -like the Neanderthal man- they become extinct. However, that is not the case with every language. There are still languages that have existed for hundreds of years. Those old languages are widely used today.
There are languages that are widely spoken and used in almost every part of the world. And these languages have a glorious history backing it up.
Changes in a language do not happen overnight. The process is slow and sometimes it is difficult for linguists to determine which language came first.
Here are some of the oldest languages in human history, some of which are still widely spoken while some only have it’s place in the pages of history books.
The earliest inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi date back to the 4th century BC, although the language is considered to be a lot older (over 2,200 years old). It also has one of the oldest literary traditions: the earliest examples of Tamil writing, called Sangam literature, date back to 300 BC.
About 78 million people still speak Tamil today and it is an official language in Singapore and Sri Lanka. It is also spoken in India and Malaysia. The language has continued to develop and has transformed into modern Tamil.
One of the oldest languages still spoken today is Sanskrit. The first written examples of Sanskrit is a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns (called Rigveda) that appeared during the 2nd millennium BC.
Although some may think that the language has become extinct, that is not true. In 2001, 14,000 people in India and 1,600 people in Nepal spoke Sanskrit. However, the language is on the verge of extinction and there are organizations that try to save it.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Basque language is thought to be the only remnant of the languages spoken in southwestern Europe before the Romans arrived in the 2nd century BC, bringing Latin, a language that was later transformed to Spanish and French.
Today, we find Basque speakers in parts of Spain, France, and the language has also “migrated” to other parts of Europe and America.
The language of the Old Testament originates from the 10th century BC and it is used today in religious texts. Ancient Hebrew was not used between the 4th and the 19th century, but the language was revived in the 1800s. Today Hebrew is spoken by almost 9 million people worldwide.
It’s actually the Persian language that is still used today in Iran and Afghanistan. It is a descendant of Old Persian and it has not changed a lot since ancient times. Old Persian date back to the Achaemenid empire, which lasted from 600 BC to 300 BC.
The oldest inscription found was written between 522 BC and 486 BC. Today, it is spoken in variations (called Farsi, Dari, and Tajik) and is used by millions of people worldwide.
One of the languages that have resisted change is Lithuanian. Although it first appears it retains a lot of the archaic structures that other Indo-European languages have abandoned. It is one of two surviving members of the Baltic family of languages (the other is Latvian).
An ancient Celtic language, Irish Gaelic still survives in some communities. The language is even older than English and it has the oldest vernacular literature among the western European languages and the first written examples come from 2,000 years ago.
Although it is recognized as an official language, people don’t use it in their everyday lives. The parts of Ireland where Gaelic is spoken are called Gaeltacht regions.
The language of great poets such as Aeschylus, ancient Greek is considered an extinct language. Modern Greek evolved from Ancient Greek, which is still taught in schools, although they are not widely used today.
However, a few years ago linguists found that an isolated tribe in Turkey speaks a dialect which has a strong resemblance to ancient Greek. The language is spoken by a few thousand people living in villages near the city of Trabzon.
The area was once the ancient region of Pontus and according to Greek myths, Jason and the Argonauts arrived in the region during their journey to get the Golden Fleece. Linguists think that by studying this specific dialect, they can see how the ancient Greek language transformed through the ages.
An ancient language spoken by just four people (an 84-year-old woman and her siblings) in South Africa, N|uu is believed to be more than 25,000 years old. It is spoken by the San people and it consists the sound of clicks.
When written, it is often punctuated by exclamation marks. It is a dying language and it slowly started to disappear after the apartheid stopped its use.