The Oldest Languages in the World

  • Ancient cuneiform
Ancient cuneiform
Couperfield/ Shutterstock

Roughly 5,000 years ago, humans started to speak to one another. Ancient civilizations in regions around the world began to develop complex language systems starting at least as early as 3200 BCE. While it’s difficult to pin down the exact origin of language given the limited archaeological evidence available, historians generally agree on a few early tongues that pioneered the use of both written and verbal communication. Today, there are more than 7,100 different languages in use around the world, and they are easier than ever to learn to speak thanks to language-learning platforms such as Babbel. Here are seven of the oldest languages in the world.

Photo credit: ASAAD NIAZI/ AFP via Getty Images


From roughly 4100 BCE to 1750 BCE, the ancient Sumerian civilization thrived across southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). The Sumerians developed the world’s oldest known writing system, cuneiform, which consisted of wedge-shaped characters carved into clay tablets. The script was later used to denote the spoken Sumerian language, in lieu of any sort of alphabet. The language started as an entirely logographic script, and evolved into a phonetic syllabic system to convey more conversational thought. The oldest known example of Sumerian writing first appeared in a group of administrative and educational texts dating to around 3200 BCE. Around 2500 BCE, the Sumerians produced the first known literature from any ancient civilization: religious works such as the Kesh Temple Hymn that focused less on real-world issues and more on mythological concepts. 

The now-extinct Sumerian language consisted of four vowel sounds (a, i, e, u) as well as 16 consonant sounds (b, d, g, ŋ, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, ś, š, t, z), and was one of the first known uses of grammatical concepts such as prefixes, infixes, and suffixes. By the year 2000 BCE, the language had faded to the point where it was no longer spoken, as new civilizations and languages emerged throughout the region. It enjoyed a brief resurgence for literary and liturgical purposes between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE, but was mainly studied by scribes thereafter.

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