Oldest languages Still Used Today
Ah, languages. They’ve existed for almost as long as the mankind, in some form or another. Over time, they evolved, developed or disappeared altogether. However, while we might not use Ancient Greek or Latin in our daily life anymore, for many people other ancient languages still constitute a big part of their cultures and lives.
Basque Language (Euskara)
Basque is a language spoken in the Basque country, Spain, and France in the Pyrenees region. It’s the last remaining proto-Indo-European language still spoken today by a lot of people – about 650,000 on the Spanish territory and 50,000 in France. It is also the last ancient language recognized as an official language of a country (Spain).
Basque’s roots date to the second century BC and the language predates the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Unlike its contemporary, Latin, Basque hasn’t branched out into “daughter” languages like French, Spanish and Italian, which are the children of Latin.
Fun fact – during The Second World War, Basque was used by code talkers for radio and telephone transmissions in the US army, together with Native American languages.
Albanian Language (GjuhaShqipe)
Perhaps surprisingly, Albanian language has a spot on this list. The article is about the old languages still SPOKEN today – although Albanian has only been written down for 500 years or so, the spoken language is technically older than Modern Greek. In fact, it has existed as early as the first century BC! Albanian is a language distinct from other modern European language because it’s a separate branch of Indo-European languages – a language isolate – although it’s heavily influenced by Latin.
Today, Albanian is spoken by 5 million people and enjoys official status in Albania and Kosovo, although it is also widely spoken in Macedonia, Serbia and Greece.
Fun fact – since it took centuries for written Albanian to develop, the alphabet is made up for 36 simple (D, E) and compound (ll, nj) letters, borrowed from Latin and Cyrillic.
Hebrew Language (עברית)
- The oldest known example dates from the 10th century BCE.
- Israel is the country/region of origin.
- The current number of native speakers is 5 million, with a total of 9 million speakers (including non-native speakers)
This language has evolved from the Aramaic family, originating around 10th century BC and today it is spoken primarily in Israel. The language of The Old Testament has been preserved to this day through religious texts and worship practices.
Interestingly enough, while Ancient and Medieval Hebrew were spoken quite widely, that wasn’t the case between 4th and 19th century. Hebrew was primarily used as a literary language then, until it was revived as a spoken language in the 1800s. Today, Hebrew is spoken by almost 9 million people worldwide.
Fun fact – the Hebrew script doesn’t feature vowels!
Lithuanian Language (lietuvių kalba)
- The most widely accepted theory holds that Proto-Baltic diverged from Proto-Slavic between 2000 and 1000 BC.
- Lithuanian is spoken by over 3 million people worldwide, the vast majority of whom live in Lithuania.
- It is the most ancient Indo-European language that is still spoken today.
- Lithuanian literary language has existed since the 16th century, earliest documents translated were the Lord’s Prayer, a creed, and the Ave Maria in about 1525.
Most European languages are members of the Indo-European language family, but they began to diverge from one another around 3500 BCE. They morphed into handfuls of other languages, including German, Italian, and English, gradually losing the characteristics that they all shared.
One language, even so, in the Indo-European family’s Baltic language branch, retained more of the characteristics of what scholars call Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which they believe was spoken around 3500 BCE. For whatever purpose, Lithuanian has retained more PIE sounds and grammar rules than any of its linguistic cousins, making it one of the oldest languages.
Persian Language (فارسی)
- The oldest known example dates from around 525 BCE.
- Origin Country/Region: Ancient Iran
- The current number of native speakers is 70 million (out of a total population of 110 million).
Originated in 5th century BC in Iraq and Iran, today, Persian is an official language in several countries, including Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. While known under different names in several countries – Tajik, Dari or Farsi – “Persian” is a widely used name for this Indo-European language.
The language, first evolved as a written language, is currently spoken by approximately 110 million people worldwide. It also serves as a parent language to Urdu.
Fun fact – Old Persian writing system was the first one in the world. Today, the speakers use the Arabic script, as well as Cyrillic!
Tamil Language (தமிழ்)
- The oldest known example dates from around 300 BCE.
- South India is the country/region of origin.
- The current population of native speakers is 75 million.
Tamil is said to be the world’s oldest language still spoken today. The classical language dates all the way back to 2000 BC! It had a well-defined grammar back then, which hasn’t changed today. Actually, Tamil is one of the few languages that changed very little in the 2 millennia. Tamil remains a well-structured and consistent language with three clear forms – classical, modern, and colloquial.
Today, Tamil enjoys the official status in three countries – India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. It’s also widespread in Malaysia, and Reunion. Tamil is spoken by approximately 110-120 million people in total.
Fun fact – the very name “Tamil” is believed to mean “sweet sound”!