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The World's 5 Oldest Languages

Our communication skills are a hallmark of our species. Without them, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are now. It influences everything from international relations to finding out what’s for dinner and we've been doing it for literally thousands of years.

There’s a huge diversity worldwide too in language, so let’s take a look at what has been spoken the longest and where it came from.

It’s a difficult one to judge accurately, as many languages have been around long before a spoken record of them exists. These five however are among the oldest thanks to records that do exist as well as the word of mouth history claimed by each culture.

5. Chinese

Existing in one form or another for over 3000 years, Chinese is one of the longest serving languages both in terms of length of its history, and number of people who use it. The first written evidence dates back to the Zhou dynasty, 1,200 years before the birth of Jesus. One variation, Mandarin, is now the world’s most widely spoken language. Nearly 20% of the world’s population now speak some form of Chinese as a first language. Used all over Asia, the Chinese language and script is an icon of the East which has been used as the official language for countless empires and dynasties over its 3,000+ year history.

flickr | Bill Tyne4. Greek

It’s hardly surprising that the language from the creators of civilisation is on this list. Greek dates back for over 3,500 years and is spoken all over the Greek peninsula of the Mediterranean. Spoken today by roughly 13 million people, it’s not very widely used today, but was once the language that gave birth to western society. Differing from Latin, Greek was the language of the common people, where Latin was used by higher society and for academic purposes.

flickr | Lance c3. Egyptian

The language of one of the oldest civilisations, Egyptian is written in its trademark hieroglyphics. Dating back well over 4,000 years, Egyptian has evolved hugely over the years. Nowadays, the language of the land of the Pharaohs is a variation on Arabic known as Egyptian Arabic so that pure Egyptian is not spoken as widely as in years gone past. Used extensively by the Greeks and Romans, Egyptian along with Greek and Latin form a holy trinity of old languages which birthed most of the western world.

flickr | Nate Swart2. Sumerian

Sumerian was spoken in the ancient realm of Sumer, which was located in Southern Mesopotamia. That’s modern day Iraq to you and me. In use from 3,300 BC, Sumerian became outdated and rarely used before many other languages on this list were even invented. It gradually evolved into Akkadian and was eventually only used as a ceremonial, scientific and literary language. It died out almost entirely during the first century AD, before being reignited by scholars and linguists in the 19th century. Written in a series of symbols and shapes, Sumerian resembles hieroglyphics to some extent which means it’s believed to be a language which influenced ancient Egyptian. Sumerian has been around for the longest of any language on this list in some form or another, if indeed not widely used.

flickr | Steve Harris1. Tamil

Despite not being around as long as Sumerian, Tamil is the oldest language based on how extensively it has been used for its lifetime. Still spoken today by the Tamil people, it is the official language of both Sri Lanka and Singapore. Its birth only comes about in around 1,000 years BC, but it has been spoken and written widely ever since. It is also spoken by minority groups in Malaysia, The United Arab Emirates, The United States, The United Kingdom, Mauritius, Canada, South Africa, Fiji, Germany, The Philippines, The Netherlands, Indonesia and France. Tamil literature is over 2,500 years old, meaning that the language falls into both categories of modern and classical. Its longevity has placed it top of this list.

flickr | romana kleeSome of you may be wondering where Hebrew is on that list. Well, it didn’t make the cut unfortunately down to its demise many years ago and recreation in the 19th century. As a result, Modern Hebrew various slightly from the classical language, in effect meaning the old version is long gone. It is slowly being recreated however, as modern Hebrew is estimated to have 200,000 fluent speakers in Israel alone, so it could well make its way back to the list.

Languages are such an integral part of who we are and where we came from that it’s simply impossible to overstate their importance. You should, therefore, seize the chance to learn any of these, or any others for that matter. Taking away a deeper knowledge of a country or land’s language enriches it in you so much more. Leave the necklaces behind, language a great souvenir to bring back from your travels.

By Guy Bezant - Online Journalism Intern

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