What is the oldest written language that can now be written?

Such that a complex paragraph - a proclamation, for instance - would be understood by a native of the time, that is. I know we can read some pretty ancient languages, but can we write them correctly?

This is an interesting question, and deserves at least one bump. I can’t answer it, but I’m intrigued to see who can.

Among “real” languages, I think Chinese gives you your best shot. The characters in use today are the same as they were 2,000 years ago, and simple sentences would stay convey meaning to someone of that era. The pronunciation system has drastically changed, but the meaning hasn’t.

OTOH, Latin is in theory still a written language (the Vatican uses it), and except for modern concepts and words added since Roman days, Cicero could easily understand any of the Vatican’s pronouncements.

I’m not sure I understand how we can be able to read a language without being able to write in it. We can write Egyptian hieroglyphics, Hebrew, Aramaic and a host of other languages. We can certainly write Greek and that’s older than Latin. The same is true for Sanskrit.

Those Vatican guys write in Atic Greek, too.

But, If I am not entirely mistaken, Hebrew is older, and lots of scholars can write in that.

So, does anyone write in cuneiform any more?

“Letter for Mr. Gilgamesh.”


“Dictionary: n. a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.” ~ Ambrose Bierce ~

A modern scholar of Sumerian cuneiform could write a sentence in it well enough that it could be read by a Sumerian native.

Mario Pei gave an example of an entire poem about the Goddess of Venice in modern Italian that reads exactly the same as in classical Latin.

Te saluto, alma Dea, Dea generosa,
O gloria nostra, o veneta regina!
In procelloso turbino funesto
Tu regnasti serena; mille membra
Intrepida prostrati in pugna acerba;
Per te miser non fui, per te non gemo,
Vivo in pace per to. Regna, o beata!
Regna in prosper sorte, in pompa augusta,
In perpetua splendore, in aurea sede!
Tu serena, tu placida, tu pia,
Tu benigna, me salva, ama, conserva!

This is made possible mostly by the feminine singular and certain forms of the second-person singular verb having preserved the same endings in Italian that they had in Latin.

Writing cueiform has to suck. All those arrowheads!

It makes sense if you’re impressing it into wet clay with a stylus.

What language was Hammurabi’s Code written in? Is that one in the running?


Akkadian and no, because that language is comfortably pre-dated by Sumerian cuneiform.

What about sanscrit? I thought that it was older than lating, greek and hebrew, and is also still a living language that a ‘classic’ scholar could write well enough in the archaic form to be understood by the ancients?

Ant I thought it was the greek orthodox who still used attic greek, not the roman catholics.

although it isnt a written language per se, but what about the languages spoken by isolated populations like the Auca of the amazon, how much change do they think happened there?

If it’s not written, then we can’t prove its history, can we?

I was under the impression that it was koine, actually.

There’s no reason to expect that the rate of language change would be any different than for other languages. Languages are always changing regardless.

The oldest form of Sanskrit - Vedic Sanskrit - can still be read and written by many pandits and scholars all over India. Some can even speak it. If we are looking for an unbroken tradition, I think Sanskrit is the oldest - parts of the Vedas are around 3500 years old.

But the oldest language that we (well, a few scholars) would be able to communicate in must be Sumerian which AFAIK is the oldest written language we know of.

Actually, we can trace Chinese writings back to about 4,000 years ago. However, the original use of Chinese characters was not what we would call “writing” today, but more along the lines of fortune telling runes. I’m not sure when it evolved into something what we would define as writing today, but it would certainly be approaching the time frame of Sanscrit.

Languages are always changing, but the rate of change differs from language to language. A simple example would be comparing Icelandic and Japanese; modern-day Icelandic speakers have little trouble reading Eddas from the 13th century, but modern Japanese speakers have a great deal of trouble with classical Japanese from the same period.

Actually, this was one of the main concepts used to trash on Glottochronology as a valid investigative technique when it was proposed; it has a lot of other issues, like the fact that it doesn’t work and the fact that the Swadesh list is extremely Eurocentric and difficult to accurately render in other languages, but it was built on the idea that language change is constant, and opponents of the technique were very quick to point this out.

Actually, we can. We can’t prove it with 100% accuracy, but there exists something called the Comparative Method through which we can reconstruct historical languages with a fair amount of accuracy, so long as we have access to modern speakers, or at the very least an extensive corpus. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_method explains it much better than I probably can, but if you’re really interested I would recommend reading Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics as an introduction.

The rate also varies from time period to time period within a certain language. English no doubt evolved rapidly during the time period following the invasion in 1066, then would have slowed down again a few centuries or so later, only to accelerate again in the future as faster means of communication developed.

I’d go for one of the forms of Coptic, which has been used apparently since around 3200BC and was spoken up to the 17thC.