Day: July 8, 2013

Ask-A-Linguist: How Old is Language?

Answers for this blog excerpt were researched and provided by Elizabeth Pyatt, Pennsylvania State University.with input from other panelists. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section about the oldest language.

How old is language?

Although this question is still being debated, most linguists assume that the full language capacity had evolved by 100,000 BC. This is when modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in Africa with a modern skull shape (indicating modern brain function) and a modern vocal tract which would allow these people to articulate all the sounds found in modern languages. Some anthropologists speculate that language or parts of the language ability may have developed earlier, but there is no firm consensus yet.

What is the “oldest language”?

In my opinion, we don’t know the answer to this question, although some people will give one anyway. Here are some criteria people use, and reasons why linguists don’t think they really work.

1. Oldest written form

Some people base their answer on which language got written down first. If you’re counting absolute oldest, probably Sumerian or Egyptian wins because they developed a writing system first (both start appearing in about 3200 BC). If you’re counting surviving languages, Chinese is often cited (first written in 1500 BC), but Greek is a possible tie because it was written in Linear B beginning ca. 1500 BC.

But all of this is irrelevant, because writing is not equal to speaking.

In 3200 BC, there were many, many languages spoken besides Sumerian and Egyptian, but they weren’t fortunate enough to have a writing system. These languages are just as old. To take one interesting case, the Albanian language (spoken north of Greece) was not written down until about the 15th century AD, yet Ptolemy mentions the people in the first century BC. The linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that Albanians were a distinct people for even longer than that. So Albanian has probably existed for several millennia, but has only been written down for 500 years. With a twist of fate, Albanian might be considered very “old” and Greek pretty “new”.

2. Longest in the Region

Another criteria people use is how long a language has been spoken in a particular region. For instance, Basque is considered very old because the evidence is that there have been Basque speakers in Spain and France since at least the 2nd century BC and probably longer than that. Similary, Welsh is considered the “oldest language in Britain” because its speakers were there first.

But population movements cannot determine a language’s age.

English speakers have moved all over the world, but even if English only arrived on a continent in the 19th century, it does not negate the fact that some form of English was spoken in the 6th century AD in England. Even Welsh has moved a bit, establishing foot holds in Patagonia (Argentina) and Canada – however, this language still originated in Britain.

3. Age of Sister Languages

Many linguists do date languages to when they split from their parent tongue. For instance, French and Spanish are both descended from Latin, so their age is determined by when they evolved into separate languages (between 400-700 AD). Some languages like Greek and Basque are considered older because they never “split” into daughter languages (although both have dialects), and so maintain their status as a “language.” In that criteria, there may be a language with the world record of being spoken the longest without having spawned daughter languages – but no one could tell you which one it is.

Even with this criteria, the situation is still murky. It’s true that there was a spoken form of Greek in 1500 BC during the Bronze Age, but if a Bronze Age Greek was transported to Modern Athens, he or she would probably not be able to understand Modern Greek. Even speakers of Classical Greek (500 BC) are lost in Athens unless they have also learned Modern Greek. Speakers of Modern English have trouble with Shakespeare from just 500 years ago.

Languages are continuously evolving over time, and probably most languages, even conservative ones, require special training in order for modern speakers to fully understand older texts. In the final analysis, most modern languages are equally young.