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Old 11-27-2006, 10:30 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
Join Date: Aug 1999
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Posts: 26,718
Lots of possibilities. First, Icelandic and Faeroese are very conservative North German languages. They have changed some since Old Norse, but in ways that make most Old Norse texts still fairly clear without special scholarship. (E.g., a typical reader can pick up the Canterbury Tales or Le Morte D'Arthur and understand much of it, with most of the rest making sense when read in context. Likewise the Sagas and Eddas are extremely archaic but comprehendable to the typical Icelander.)

Greek is a strong candidate. I have an Internet friend who is a cook, a native of Athens fluent in English, with no special training, who can read the Septuagint, Aristophanes, and Plato with the same sort of "Omigod this is old sounding but it makes sense" reaction. However -- and this is a big "but" -- this refers to written Greek. The spoken language has changed immensely since that day -- including sound shifts that are very close parallels to what English has gone through. But it still uses the same written language, by and large, with some vocabulary changes. (For example, his boss's teenage son is an agora -- which formerly meant "open marketplace" -- not a kouros as Plato would have had it.)

Modern Hebrew, of course, is a determined effort to revive classical Hebrew with modern terms and usage added. To a substantial extent this is also true of Irish, but Old Irish is a quite different language from modern Irish Gaelic -- in much the same way as the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf differs from modern English, and for many of the same reasons. Perhaps the champion in this regard, though, is Sanskrit, which is claimed as their mother tongue by a few hundred citizens of India -- though this claim is about akin to Latin being the official language of Vatican City. But that does represent a nearly unchanged language of over 2600 years lineage, albeit a highly artificial claim.

Lithuanian is an extremely conservative language, believed to be the language closest to what Proto-Indo-European was 4000 years ago. It has evolved in its own specialized ways but at a very slow pace compared to other languages. (Intriguingly, this is not true for the other extant Baltic language, Lett (Latvian), but it both provides a cross-check on Lithuanian and has its own conservative vocabulary usages.)

As with Greek, note that Chinese ideography, though several times reformed, preserves continuity with writings of several hundred years BC -- approaching 3000 years. We do not, of course, have a clear understanding of how the spoken languages ("Chinese" is not a single language but a group of languages, many not mutually intelligible, written in the same ideographic script) have changed over that period.

So there are a large group of candidates for "least changed" -- depending more on what criteria you use for "least change" and "same language" than on any objective standard.