Oldest Language.

What is the oldest recorded language (1) still in use (in any way), (2) known to man (whether or not still in use). Note (1) and (2) might just refer to the same language.

Thank you in advance to all who reply :slight_smile:

Oldest in it’s current form? Or oldest in any form?

There’s some speculation that Basque may date back to the original inhabitants of Europe.

It’s also hard to date languages in continents other than Asia and Europe: we only know if they were being used when Europeans first recorded them.

It’s also hard to determine the date of any language other than the so-called artificial languages.

Bear in mind, any known language is either:

  1. A language still in use (somewhere, somehow, by somebody); or

  2. An extinct language which survives in written form (which might or might not be readable to modern scholars).

No doubt there are countless extinct languages that never were written down, so there is no way to know anything about them, except by speculation based on known languages that (may have) evolved from them.

The OP as for “recorded language”, so the fact that Basque “may date back to the original inhabitants of Europe” doesn’t count unless thatearly Basque survives in written form.

Some obvious contenders for old languages still in use are Hebrew, Sanskrit and Chinese – though the earliest forms of Chinese are so different from modern Chinese that they perhaps don’t count as a language still in use. However, Hebrew and SAnskrit illustrate the fact that religious use can keep old languages in use in the same form.

I probably should have mentioned this in my OP. But actually I am looking for both: oldest in the current and oldest form.

Well, “oldest” is sort of an odd question. English, as a seperate language, can be traced back quite a way, but most people nowadays wouldn’t be able to understand much of anything an Anglo-Saxon/Old English speaker would say. Having said that…

The first is probably Sanskrit, one of the oldest attested Indo-European languages. The oldest Sanskrit sources, the Vedic poems, are dated to around about 4000 years ago, and it is still used as a ceremonial and religious language in India. I think it is also spoken as a vernacular in a few places as well, but only due to recent revival.

The second is a bit more complicated… There’s two ways of answering it: the oldest directly attested language is Sumerian. Spoken in the middle east around about 6000 years ago it is preserved in the oldest written documents, in an early cuneiform script. However, with comparative linguistics, linguists can trace languages back much further, to a reconstructed common ancestor. We know, for example, that the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages was probably spoken about 7000 years ago. Other reconstructions go further back - the common ancestor of the Afro-Asiatic languages, which includes Hebrew, Arabic, Babylonian, Akkadian, Ancient Egyptian, the Ethiopian languages and many other languages of North Africa, is at the very limits of what conventional linguistics deems possible for the comparative method, reconstructed as having been spoken about 10,000 years ago. Other far more controversial reconstructions attempt to link these families into even larger super families, but the comparative method for reconstructing common ancestors doesn’t work nearly so well at those time depths - we might be able to posit a common ancestor, but we have almost no idea what it could have looked like.

I am pretty sure Sumerian is considered the oldest written language known to have existed (ancient Egyptian might be close in age).

Icelandic is one of the oldest unchanged languages. Anyone who knows the modern Icelandic language can read the Icelandic sagas written in the 1100’s.

The thing is, for one language to be older than another, you’d have to know the start dates, which we don’t. All languages in a language family are equally old in one sense. Sanskrit is attested much earlier than English, and is still in use today (in liturgy, in scholarship, and as daughter languages), but both ultimately come from the same source, so they’re the same age. Sanskrit just has a longer history.

The question is sort of like saying, “What’s the oldest human group still in existence?”

All languages change over time, so that we usually give distinct names to chronological phases of a language. “Latin” is dead only in the sense that it’s now called French, Spanish, Italian, etc. They didn’t stop speaking Latin, it just morphed, and the spoken versions aren’t called Latin anymore. Some languages change more slowly or less dramatically, so that modern Icelandic is closer to Old Norse than modern English is to Old English.

So what are you asking:

Which language has the longest continuous recorded history up to the present day? (My guess would be Chinese, but I’m not sure)

Which language family has the longest recorded history up to the present day? (Either Indo-European or Semitic)

The speakers of which language today could go back in time the farthest and still be understood? (Dunno.)

Very strictly, no one spoken language is older than any other. Language is a fluid, organic thing … only seeming static within a human life span. You can take any natural language spoken today and trace it back in time as far as one may care. For instance, if you start with Modern French and follow the language back in time, you’d never get to a discrete beginning for the French language. Instead, you’d find the langauge slowly melting into a dialect of what you’d recognize as Latin. Follow those Latin speakers further back, tracing backwards their gradual migrations away from the Russian steppes, and you’ll find that they’re not speaking recognizable Latin anymore, either. You get into what’s called Proto-Indo-European – a language of which we have no direct knowledge (but for which we’ve made plenty of extrapolations).

You could keep going back further in time still – Proto-Indo-European itself is indiscretely descended from some other language. And so on and so on.


An exception might be made for pidgins and creoles that are formed when two language communities come together, with speakers on both sides coming up with an ad hoc speech to quickly facilitate communciation (e.g. Tok Pisin, created when English traders and New Guinean natives first met up).

Do a little searchingin GQ (“language”). Both of these questions have been answered several times. In fact, there was a thread started by **Bricker **about this within the last month.

Our root tongue; linguistics and history

As nearly as I can make out from the multiple times this question has been asked, there’s only one way to answer it — and it’s impossible without a time machine.

Language changes so slowly over time that any division between one language and another is purely arbitrary.

Therefore, if there is a demonstrably “oldest” language, we must assume language was invented in more than one place, at different times; and that one language did not germinate the other. However, we can only trace back the origins of any language to a certain point: for instance, to the earliest written recording of it. That’s no guarantee that the language is older, only that the sample we found was older than other samples.

In fact, given one sample of a recorded language from 6000 BC and another sample from 7500 BC, there’s no guarantee that they didn’t descend from the same roots in 20000 BC.

Therefore I’m going to go out on a limb and say the oldest language is body language. It’s just as likely to be accurate as any other guess, plus it’s got innuendo built into it. :smiley:

This question has been asked and answered in so many other threads already. (I’m sorry, I hate when they tell me that too, when I try to ask an innocent question.)

Having studied comparative philology across multiple language families and comparative reconstructions of hypothetical protolanguages, my sense is that Finnish has retained the most conservative linguistic features overall of any language I know of. That does not mean I think Finnish is “the oldest language.” I don’t believe there can be any real answer to that question, because the question itself is scientifically incoherent. I have the sense that Finnish has more similarity to the form its ancestral speakers spoke about 10,000 years ago. That is the time depth estimated for the WARNINGCONTROVERSIAL TEXT FOLLOWS*** hypothetical macrofamily of Nostratic, studied in hushed tones by fringe linguists by candlelight in dank cellar safe houses, plotting coups of linguistics departments in major universities.

Listen to the song “Kylän Kävijä” by the Finnish band Värttinä, from their Vihma CD; it gives me the eldritch vibe of Neolithic shamanism, much of which survived as a folk tradition in the Kalevala. Värttinä draws much of their inspiration from traditional Finnish magic as told in the Kalevala. Some of their songs and albums (like Ilmatar) are based directly on the Kalevala, in the tradition of Jean Sibelius. The way the three female singers use their voices reminds me that early shamanism was largely done by women, which is only now beginning to be acknowledged, as male dominated anthropology used to pay more attention to the works of males. I remember reading years ago that Australian Aboriginal religion was the province of men, and Aboriginal women seemed to have almost no religion. In fact, male anthropologists were only allowed to see the men’s rites. When a woman anthropologist, Diane Bell, got with Aboriginal women, she produced a study, Daughters of the Dreaming, showing that of course the women have religion as much as men, duh.

Back to the OP: If you really wanted to know the data I’ve looked at to persuade me that Finnish is unusually conservative, I could provide it. But since I posted this information in an GQ thread a few days ago, I don’t feel like repeating it now. Search for the word Nostratic and you’ll find it near the top of the search results.

So if you want to feel a sense of the world’s oldest language, I suggest listening to Värttinä music.

Or, the OP can just click on the link I gave in post #13. :slight_smile:

I think I’m get hands on some of this music. It sounds very interesting!

BTW, for those who don’t know, Tolkien got a lot of his inspiration for *LotR *from the Kalevala, and for Elvish from Finnish.

Ah yes, that must be why Värttinä was chosen to compose the music for the stage play of The Lord of the Rings. Enya (composer of “Lothlórien” from Shepherd Moons had her turn making music for the movie. Now it’s so cool how they’re musically going back to the ancient roots of Tolkien’s art itself.

A writer who also thinks the Finnish language and the roots of the Kalevala are very ancient: Cecelia Holland. Her novel Pillar of the Sky is about the building of Stonehenge.

The Neolithic tribe who builds it has women who sit around and grind grain in a round stone mill, watching and commenting on changes in the tribe. They sing a grinding song with the refrain: Sampo, Sampo. The Finnish word sampo is here taken to mean a stone mill. The Sampo song recurs like a Greek chorus at points during the novel, and the description of the Sampo turning round like the wheel of the sky invokes time, change, and return.

Three concepts are fused in this image of the Sampo women and their song:

  1. The original sampo in the Kalevala is an object of great magic power, wrought by Ilmarinen, a mythic craftsman, and stolen like the Silmarils. Much of the action revolves around it. Its interpretation as a mill can be seen from the line “Well the Sampo grinds when finished.” Elias Lönnrot himself thought the Sampo was a stone mill. Finally it is smashed and sunk in the sea.
  2. Hamlet’s Mill by Giorgio di Santillana and Hertha von Dechend is a study of ancient cosmic myths and what they reveal about the precession of the equinoxes. In particular, the Nordic myth of Amloði, whose mill grinding the sand of the seas became broken and wobbled, suggesting the sky turning like a mill and being “broken” symbolizes the wobble of the earth’s axis, causing the precession of the equinoxes. The authors theorized the myth dated from the Ice Age based on astronomical interpretations of the myths. “Hamlet” is a form that the name Amloði became in English.
  3. Clearly Holland read Hamlet’s Mill and took its inspiration for creating a Neolithic society with a thread of myth that stretched from that time into ours. Namely, a word from the Finnish language. Pretty neat!

Making broad claims about gender roles in the countless different cultures that have existed is dangerous. And you seem to be taking it both ways here - both embracing the silly feminist myth that all human society was originally matriarchal, and arguing that it’s obvious that women were not passive observers of history. The latter I would agree with (as would anyone) - but it applies equally to men. New Agey claims that women were once the spiritual leaders of human society are interesting in the same way that every myth is interesting - they illustrate something fascinating about those who create and believe those myths.

I never said “matriarchal” nor did I imply it, so to read that into my words would be to misread me. My thinking about women’s roles in prehistory does not use a matriarchal concept. Partnership society is the term I prefer. Not everyone who wants to re-examine women’s status in prehistory is a believer in matriarchy. That’s a stereotype.