What’s the Oldest Language in the World?

8 min readApr 14, 2020

We will never know. Or —

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi once praised Tamil as the oldest language in the world, a sentiment shared by a number of bloggers and sites.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell, or at least, according to my far-from-expertise self and the issues I’ve run into (there are probably more, but the point here is to hopefully resonate and bounce ideas off of people who are similarly intrigued but are unable to study this full-time):

  1. Spoken language existed long before written languages, but we don’t have a time machine, so we only really have written records to go off of.
  2. Spoken language changes overtime, and because of the way we define things (ex. old English became middle English but it’s not like it transitioned overnight), you could end up with a recursive line of languages that came from other languages and run into the whole proto-human language idea (origin of language) and that intersects with the origin of species and that’s its own issue.

Here’s the problem in not a nutshell:

Written Records and Language

The definition of “language” is not as clearly-defined as one might think. Initially, you might say “it’s verbal or written communication”. But think about languages like ASL: surely it’s a language, in that it conveys pieces of information from one person to another in a patterned, structural way, but with hand and body movements instead of sound. Then there’s Silbo Gomero, a whistling language that transposes Spanish intonation and sounds into whistling patterns. Some argue that music and mathematics are languages too, extrapolating the idea of language as something communicating something to broader fields.

On the other hand, there’s “written language” that we need to define. If you break down sentences, like the one you’re reading right now, to its crude elements, each letter is simply a construction of lines and angles. Pictures and symbols are made of these things too. Does that mean street signs are included within the definition of language? Does that mean photographs and pictures are languages, not in the artful sense, but in the technical sense as well?

Very quickly, you can tell there’s quite a few definitions of language. Some languages are prototypical (as in, a good/typical examples of a language) and others err on the fringe. Something intuitively tells…


language, anime, short musings