The globe hums with thousands of languages. But when did humans first lay out a structured system to communicate, one that was distinct to a particular area?
Scientists are aware of more than 7,100 languages in use today. Nearly 40 percent of them are considered endangered, meaning they have a declining number of speakers and are at risk of dying out. Some languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, while more than half of the world’s population uses one of just 23 tongues.
These languages and dead ones that are no longer spoken weave together millennia of human interactions. That means the task of determining the world’s oldest language is more than a linguistic curiosity. For instance, in order to decipher clay tablet inscriptions or trace the evolution of living tongues, linguists must grapple with questions that extend beyond language. In doing so, their research reveals some of the secrets of ancient civilizations and even sparks debates that blend science and culture.
“Ancient languages, just like contemporary languages, are crucial for understanding the past. We can trace the history of human migrations and contacts through languages. And in some cases, the language information is our only reliable source of information about the past,” says Claire Bowern, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale University. “The words that we can trace back through time give us a picture of the culture of past societies.”
Language comes in different forms—including speech, gestures and writing—which don’t all leave conclusive evidence behind. And experts use different approaches to determine a language’s age.
Tracing the oldest language is “a deceptively complicated task,” says Danny Hieber, a linguist who studies endangered languages. One way to identify a language’s origins is to find the point at which a single tongue with different dialects became two entirely distinct languages, such that people speaking those dialects could no longer understand each other. “For example, how far back in history would you need to go for English speakers to understand German speakers?” he says. That point in time would mark the origins of English and German as distinct languages, branching off from a common proto-Germanic language.
Alternatively, if we assume that most languages can be traced back to an original, universal human language, all languages are equally old. “You know that your parents spoke a language, and their parents spoke a language, and so forth. So intuitively, you’d imagine that all languages were born from a single origin,” Hieber says.
But it’s impossible to prove the existence of a proto-human language—the hypothetical direct ancestor of every language in the world. Accordingly, some linguists argue that the designation of the “oldest language” should belong to one with a well-established written record.
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