Do you ever just imagine what it was like to live hundreds, even thousands of years ago? What would you do, what would you wear, what language would you speak? Let’s look at the oldest language in the world, well, some of the oldest languages, and go from there. Hop on board, let’s take a language trip through time.
The Oldest Language in the World
The thing about discussing the oldest language in the world is there is some debate on what that language actually is. Different scholars and debaters have different ideas of what makes a language old. However, a large consensus gives the language of Tamil the honor of being the oldest language in the world.
We see from this article that Tamil is often considered the oldest language. However, Sanskrit has a close second and many scholars believe this to be the oldest language. To make things easy, we are going to cover them both with a little history.
Tamil is an official language of India, which means it is still spoken today. In fact, Holidify tell us that spoken by 78 million people and official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore, Tamil is the oldest language in the world. It is the only ancient language that has survived all the way to the modern world. This makes for quite an impressive history and language.
Omniglot shares these facts about Tamil:
- The earliest known inscriptions in Tamil date back to about 500 BC.
- Tamil literature started to appear in 300 BC and up until 700 AD is known as Old Tamil
- From 700-1600 AD the language is known as Middle Tamil
- Since 1600 the language has been known as Modern Tamil.
- Speakers in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, UK, South Africa, Canada, USA, Singapore, France, Mauritius use Tamil.
Sanskrit is recognized in the constitution of India as both a classical language and an official language and continues to be used in scholarly, literary, and technical media, as well as in periodicals, radio, television, and film, according to Britannica. With a beautiful, valuable history, Sanskrit is the root of many Indian languages. However, most of its current use comes in historical or religious settings. Sanskrit is now spoken by less than 1% of Indians and is mostly used by Hindu priests during religious ceremonies, says an article from BBC News.
The fact that it not a commonly used language makes it no less important. Besides the religious and historical impact, when people learn Sanskrit, it opens the door to many other languages. It also is tied so closely with Indian culture that learning it can bind people closer to that culture. It has a strong role in Hindu history and philosophy.
Translation of Sanskrit is a valuable tool not only because of the history and philosophical impact, but also because of the intertwining ties throughout modern languages. Also, it’s common to use Sanskrit in different forms of media, and getting it correct is crucial to maintaining the integrity of the language.
Some of the Other Oldest Languages in the World
When we look at language, we see many languages coming from one. As mentioned, a large number of Indian languages come from Sanskrit, and likewise, Latin is the root of many European languages, the Romance languages. Chinese is also a very ancient language with a vast, important history. Both Latin and Chinese deserve some mention here. And of course, we can’t leave out Greek. Let’s take a look!
Latin is basically the forefather of the Romance languages; some people refer to it as the Mother Tongue. So, first, what’s Latin’s origin? According to Ancient Language, the birth of Latin took place around 700 BC in a small settlement sloping up towards Palatine Hill. The speakers of this language were called Romans, after their legendary founder, Romulus.
Later, as people traveled across Europe, the language spread and morphed into the other languages. These languages are Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian, and over 90 percent of those who speak a Romance language speak one of these. These languages all came from Vulgar Latin, which is the language that the common people spoke as opposed to classical Latin. As people traveled across Europe, the language spread and morphed into the other languages. And within each language are different dialects. We love evolution.
This is why people say if you know Latin, you have a knack for most of these other Romance languages. While some people consider Latin a dead language, it’s important for those in the medical, legal, or any linguistical field to know it. It’s also great to be familiar with Latin if you are thinking of translation, especially with the Romance languages.
Archaic Chinese dates back to the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (11th to 7th centuries B.C.). With a long involved history, this evolved into some modern forms of Chinese, including Mandarin, Wu, and Cantonese, all with a variety of dialects. Certain regions of China, like the mountains and river regions of Southern China have more language diversity than areas like Northern China. Again, though Chinese has had a long development, the language is integral to a large percent of the world’s population.
According to Statista.com:
Chinese (and all of its varieties such as Mandarin and Wu) is by far the most spoken language across the world with 1.31 billion speakers. That’s approximately 16 percent of the world’s population. Indeed, there are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of the Chinese language and Mandarin is the most spoken (898 million speakers).
So if you are debating on a great, useful language to learn, think about one of the many modern forms of Chinese.
Greek is another of the oldest languages in the world. It dates back over 3,500 years and gave birth to the current language of Greek. Though it may not have spread and morphed like some of the other old languages, Greek has a beautiful culture, including art and mythology, and has a current speaking population of around 13 million.
We must mention the Greek alphabet while discussing languages, as the Greek alphabet is the ancestor of all modern European language, including English. Some languages may have more of a direct connection to the Greek alphabet, but it even had a large indirect impact on other languages. The Phoenicians helped the spread of this alphabet and in turn, had a huge contribution to the development of human civilization.
The Importance of Old Languages in Today’s World
Though these ancient forms of languages are rarely spoken in today’s world, we can’t discount the importance they have. We touched on the importance of the medical, legal, historical, and linguistical fields. But they also have an effect on global communities and the way the world is evolving. As our global divides begin to lessen, the need for meaningful communication across language barriers grows. The more languages we all know, the better our communication will be. And by being aware of old languages, it’s often easier to learn a new language.
Look at this from our Bunny Library:
We have examined the concept of the United States as a translation nation. We have ascertained some of the different influences that have made the U.S the place it is. Jewish and Italian immigrants shed many facets of their identity and became Americans. The echoes of their travels and history linger on and still inform their experience and also give form to American culture at large. The objective of the piece was simply to observe the United States as a translation nation: a place that is the sum of several languages and cultures and yet something quite unique altogether.
Echoes of travels and history linger….remembering our old languages validates our histories. This not only helps us move into the future, but it keeps the past close beside us like an old friend. Not only does a knowledge of old language help with translation in and of itself, but it helps with appreciation. It helps us learn of art and history and culture. How do we appreciate the great Greek myths without some concept of the Greek language? How can we marvel at the spiritual awakening of Sanskrit without knowing anything about the language?
But What is a Dead Language?
So we’ve covered many of them – a dead language is one that is not really spoken any longer, like Latin and Sanskrit. Sure they have some uses in religious ceremonies or other contexts, but communities don’t really use them. However, learning dead languages is great for learning modern ones. We didn’t get into Old English or Hebrew, but these also have such an impact on culture. Not only the languages that derived from them, but think about old texts, like the Bible, Shakespeare’s works, Beowulf… Only knowing modern language will keep you from gaining full appreciation of so many things in life.
There’s no harm in bringing a language back to life. And think of all the Jeopardy questions you’ll be able to answer!
Summing Up the Importance of the Oldest Language in the World
Old languages have a real place in the world. Whether you are looking at the very oldest language in the world, or simply some of the old ones, you are opening a magical journey. These languages tell stories and share history, they paint pictures and sing songs. And they are the beginning of the modern world. For any linguist or translator, it’s crucial to know old languages.
At Bunny Studio, as we strive to work with the top translators in the field, we love the study of old languages. If you are interested in putting your skills to use, let us know at Bunny Studio. We are always looking to add to our team, and if you love the world of language like we do, reach out and give us a chat!
Farewell and Namaste, friends.