On October 4th, 2023. the American magazine “Discover” published an article listing the eight ancient languages that are still in use today. So, what are the eight oldest languages in the world that people continue to use?
There are over 7,000 languages still in use around the world today. Papua New Guinea holds the record for the most diverse language count in a single country, estimated at around 840 languages. Even in the United States, which is not particularly known for its linguistic diversity, there are over 350 languages spoken.
However, just like animals, languages can also face the risk of “extinction.” You are unlikely to encounter someone speaking Coptic (an ancient Egyptian language) at your local coffee shop. While Latin is still used in certain contexts and occasionally spoken by some, it is no longer a native language for any community.
What are the eight oldest languages in the world?
The eight oldest languages in the world are: Hebrew, Tamil, Sanskrit, Greek, Chinese, Arabic, Basque, and Navajo.
Hebrew is an example of a language that nearly disappeared and then “resurrected.” It has a history of at least 3000 years, but for about two centuries, only scholars and religious leaders spoke Hebrew. It gradually vanished as a spoken language in the early centuries AD, but with the rise of Zionism, it was revived in the 19th century. Today, Hebrew is the official language of Israel, spoken by over 5 million people, with around 9 million speakers worldwide.
Tamil, unlike Hebrew, has a continuous record of at least 2500 years in literature and everyday life. Currently, there are over 80 million speakers of this ancient language. Tamil is primarily spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore, but there are also Tamil speakers in countries like Guyana, Fiji, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago. In recent times, immigrants have brought the language to Australia, Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Sanskrit, often referred to as the “language of the gods,” is not only the language used in the Vedas (India’s oldest literary materials and literary genre), but also known for its beauty and complexity. It emerged around 2000 BC and was once widely used in Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, there are few people who speak Sanskrit in India today. However, due to its influence on languages like Hindi and Bengali, understanding Sanskrit is beneficial for grasping these languages.
Greek’s history can be traced back to around 1300 BC. Ancient Greek not only “survives” in the language spoken by modern Greeks, Turks, and Cypriots, but also exists in other Western languages. According to classical literature professor Tamara M. Green in her book “Greek and Latin Roots in English,” 60% of English words have Greek or Latin roots. In the case of specialized scientific terminology, this proportion rises to 90%. Although Latin is no longer anyone’s native language, its legacy continues in modern Romance languages. Today, there are still 12 million Greek speakers.
Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world and one of the oldest. The history of inscribed bones and tortoise shells with Chinese characters can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty, which means this language has a history of at least 3000 years, possibly even older. Chinese has many different variants, but Mandarin is the most commonly used. These variants are often referred to as “dialects,” but they sound quite different from each other. However, because they share the same writing system (you may be familiar with those famous Chinese characters), speakers of different dialects can still communicate easily through writing.
Arabic originated on the Arabian Peninsula and then spread to Africa and throughout the Middle East. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, it was a common language in philosophy and science. Arabic is the language of Islam and the Quran. Today, there are 420 million Arabic speakers, and it is an official language in 24 countries.
Basque, also known as Euskara, remains a mystery regarding its origin and is unrelated to other known language families. The ancient Romans implemented colonial rule in the Southwest European region from the 2nd century, and only Basque survived from the languages used in that region before that time. Though lacking specific statistics, at least 750,000 people still speak this language in parts of Spain and France.
Navajo is one of the most commonly used indigenous languages in North America. People in the central region of Mexico have spoken it since the 7th century. It was also the language of the Aztec Empire. Currently, about 1.5 to 2 million people speak some form of Navajo. However, the language still faces the risk of disappearing, as the older generation no longer passes it on to the younger generation. Many commonly used English words, such as tomato, chocolate, avocado, are derived from Navajo.
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