In a world echoing with over 7,100 distinct languages, tracing the roots of our linguistic history is no small feat. Remarkably, almost 40% of these languages are endangered, teetering on the brink of extinction, while half of the globe converses in merely 23 dominant languages.
So, when did humanity first develop a structured system of communication? The path to answering this question not only satisfies linguistic curiosity but also unveils the mysteries of ancient civilizations and propels discussions intertwining science and culture.
“Ancient languages, just like contemporary ones, are crucial for understanding the past. The words that we can trace back through time give us a picture of the culture of past societies,” said Claire Bowern, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale University, in a conversation with Scientific American.
However, finding the oldest language is "a deceptively complicated task," as pointed out by linguist Danny Hieber. There are numerous ways to approach this. For example, one might identify when dialects of a single language diverged to the point of becoming mutually unintelligible, forming distinct languages. Another perspective suggests that all languages may stem from a universal proto-human language, rendering them equally ancient.
Still, some linguists assert that the title of the "oldest language" should be awarded to languages with a concrete written record. Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian languages, with evidence dating back around 4,600 years, are commonly considered the most ancient in this category. Although they have no living descendants, their written traces have provided critical insights into the cultures of their times.
Considering languages that are still spoken today, Hebrew and Arabic emerge as significant contenders due to their Afroasiatic heritage, a family whose origins may date back 20,000 to 10,000 years ago. Nevertheless, the timelines surrounding these languages' divergences from other Afroasiatic languages remain subjects of debate.
Chinese also enters the conversation, believed to have evolved from Proto-Sino-Tibetan around 4,500 years ago. Interestingly, the earliest Chinese writing can be traced to inscriptions on tortoise shells and bones about 3,300 years old, with modern Chinese characters coming much later.
However, as we venture further back in time, the linguistic narrative becomes foggy. Deven Patel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, references the ancient Hindu texts in Sanskrit, part of the Vedas, which were composed between 1500 and 1200 B.C.E. He views Sanskrit as “the oldest continuous language tradition,” since it continues to produce literature and is spoken today, albeit not as a primary language.
On the other hand, the Dravidian language Tamil, still spoken by 85 million people, is a candidate for the title. Scientists have documented Tamil for over 2,000 years, but the age of its oldest literary work, the Tolkāppiyam, remains a topic of debate. As Patel observes, "Tamil speakers have been especially enthusiastic in trying to separate the language as uniquely ancient.”
The contention surrounding the ages of Sanskrit and Tamil typifies the overarching challenges in determining the world's eldest language. As Patel articulately summarizes, “To answer this question, we've seen people create new histories, which are as much political as they are scientific. There are bragging rights associated with being the oldest and still evolving language.”
While the quest for the world's oldest language offers tantalizing glimpses into our ancient past, it remains a tapestry of myriad threads – each narrative as unique and vibrant as the cultures and civilizations from which they emerged.
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