The 10 Oldest Languages Still Spoken in the World

December 20, 2023

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Replica of a book with ancient Greek writings on paper

Humans began communicating through words around 100,000 years ago, and, over long periods of time, languages began evolving.

Today, it is thought that more than 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide. It is difficult to determine the exact number because languages are constantly changing and evolving, with some dying out altogether. 

Some of the oldest languages have continued to evolve over time, though, and are still spoken today. Keep reading to find out what they are.

1. Egyptian

Egyptian hieroglyphics carved in stone
Egyptian hieroglyphics carved in stone
Age: 2600 BC (circa. 4,600 years old)
Origin: Nile Valley of Northeastern Africa
Number of speakers: 74.8 million

The ancient language of Egyptian is the oldest spoken language that remains today. It was first recorded in hieroglyphic script about 4,600 years ago, adorning the walls of temples and tombs. Over time, it became spoken by both the common man and the elite and was used in literature, legal proceedings, and religious ceremonies.

The Egyptian language has undergone many transformations since it was first developed, beginning as Old Egyptian and evolving into Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, and finally, the Coptic dialects.

Today, Bohairic Coptic remains the sacred language of the Coptic Church, and historians study the Egyptian language to gain insight into Ancient Egyptian times.

2. Sanskrit

"OM" Sanskrit Language
Sanskrit symbol known as “Om” or “Aum”
Age: 1500 BC (circa. 3,500 years old)
Origin: South Asia
Number of speakers: 2 million

At approximately 3,500 years old, Sanskrit is the second-oldest language still spoken in the world. 

It arose in South Asia around 1500 BC and was used to enable people with different native languages to communicate. In the early medieval era, Sanskrit became a language of religion, with sacred texts, including the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Upanishad, written in it. Additionally, Sanskrit has contributed to the field of mathematics, with the Sulbasutras — which are appendices to the Vedas — giving rules for constructing altars.

As well as being the sacred language of Hinduism, Sanskrit is widely used in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and texts like the Upanishad continue to be studied today.

3. Greek

Ancient Greek letters carved into marble
Greek letters carved into marble
Age: 1450 BC (circa. 3,450 years old)
Origin: Greece
Number of speakers: 13 million

Greek is another of the oldest languages in the world that’s still in use today. Taking the third spot on this list, it dates back 3,450 years, with its writing system — the Greek alphabet — used for about 2,800 years.

As the language used by ancient philosophers, mathematicians, and playwrights, Greek holds an important place in Western world history. Many foundational texts in philosophy and science were originally written in Greek, some of the most notable of which include the literary works of Homer and the New Testament of the Bible.

Based on the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians, the Greek alphabet was the basis of multiple writing systems, including Latin, Cyrillic, Gothic, and Glagolitic, and while today it is only used for the Greek language, it is the root script of most modern Western world scripts. 

Along with Latin, Greek words are commonly used in the field of science, and Greek symbols are used in mathematics. For centuries, the language has been used to coin words in other languages, with many English words, such as “architect”, “economy”, and “microscope”, derived from Greek.

4. Chinese

Close up detail view of Chinese letters
Chinese characters displayed on a wall
Age: 1250 BC (circa. 3,300 years old)
Origin: China and parts of Southeast Asia
Number of speakers: 1.13 billion

The fourth-oldest language still spoken in the world is Chinese, which was first developed around 3,300 years ago.

The earliest written records of the Chinese language are oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty era, dating back to 1250 BC. Historically, there have been many variations of Chinese which are unintelligible to one another — and this is also true today. Many people consider these dialects to be their own separate languages. However, those who speak different dialects can communicate in written form using Standard Chinese or “Standard Mandarin”, which is an official language of China. Interestingly, Mandarin is the second most spoken language in the world according to how many people speak it, plus it has the most amount of native speakers.

Chinese literature, including the ancient classics by philosophers Confucius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi, provide valuable insights into human nature, ethics, and governance, while the Chinese characters themselves have had a huge influence on the art and design world.

5. Aramaic

Flag of Syria
Flag of Syria, where the Aramaic language originated
Age: 1100 BC (circa. 3,100 years old)
Origin: Syria
Number of speakers: 1-2 million

Dating back to 1100 BC, the Aramaic language is about 3,100 years old, making it the fifth-oldest language still spoken today.

While Aramaic originated in Syria, it quickly spread to Mesopotamia (a historical region of West Asia) and the Asian portion of Turkey, where it has been continually spoken since, in one variety or another. 

Like the Greek alphabet, the Aramaic alphabet is a descendant of the Phoenician alphabet, and it is the basis of writing systems in other Semitic languages, for example, the Arabic alphabet and the Hebrew alphabet.

Today, Modern Aramaic is spoken by Assyrians, some Mandeans, and some Mizrahi Jews, but sadly the language is at risk of extinction, as many varieties are only spoken by older people.

6. Hebrew

Bible cover with Hebrew letters
Cover of the bible with Hebrew letters
Age: 1000 BC (circa. 3,000 years old)
Origin: Israel
Number of speakers: 9 million

Hebrew is the sixth-oldest language still spoken, with writings that date back approximately 3,000 years. 

Almost all of the Hebrew Bible is written in Biblical Hebrew, and the language has been known as “the holy tongue” since ancient times. The native language of the Israelites, Hebrew, was spoken until around 300 CE when it died out (although it was largely preserved as a liturgical language). In the 19th century, however, it started being used again, and it is the only language to have experienced such a large-scale revival.

Today, Hebrew is Israel’s official language, and it is used by academics to study religious scriptures and other ancient texts. 

7. Persian (Farsi)

Woman holding the Koran written in Farsi
Copy of the Koran which is written in Farsi
Age: 525 BC (circa. 2,500 years old)
Origin: Iran
Number of speakers: 130 million

In seventh place on the list of oldest languages still in use is Persian, which is also known as Farsi. Originating in southwestern Iran in 525 BCE, the language is 2,500 years old.

Until Persian, the Arabic language monopolized writing in the Muslim world. As well as being traditionally used in eastern courts and an official language of bureaucracy with non-native speakers like the Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Pashtuns, it even went on to influence the Arabic language. Persian also influenced the languages of Armenian, Georgian, Turkic, and, most notably, Urdu.

Modern Persian — which is spoken today — has evolved from Old Persian with relatively few changes.

8. Tamil

Ancient Tamil inscriptions on a wall
Ancient Tamil inscriptions on a stone wall in Tamil Nadu, India
Age: 300 BC (circa. 2,300 years old)
Origin: India and Sri Lanka
Number of speakers: 86.4 million

Evidence of the Tamil language dates back 2,300 years, making it the eighth-oldest language still spoken in the world. With a large body of ancient literature, it is also one of the world’s oldest classical languages.

Two of India’s oldest manuscripts were written in Tamil, and 60,000 of the country’s 100,000 inscriptions are in the state of Tamil Nadu, 95 percent of which are written in the Tamil language. Inscriptions written in Old Tamil have also been found in Sri Lanka and on trade goods in Egypt and Thailand.

Over the years, the language has greatly influenced the arts, academia, and culture, and its script is used for writing in other South Asian languages too.

9. Korean

Chalkboard with restaurant menu items translated from English to Korean
Korean translations written on a restaurant chalkboard
Age: 1st century BC (circa. 2,100 years old)
Origin: Northern Asia
Number of speakers: 81.7 million

At 2,100 years old, Korean ninth on the list of ancient languages that are still spoken today.

Two of the oldest Korean inscriptions are the Samguk Yusa and the world’s largest inscribed stele (or “stela” – an upright stone slab or column), the Gwanggaeto, both of which date back to the fourth century. 

Today, Korean is the official language of both North Korea and South Korea. However, like Standard Chinese and Taiwan, there are differences between them, with South Korea portraying North Korea’s language as alien and uncomfortable and North Korea taking things further by criminalizing the use of South Korea’s language.

10. Arabic

Arabic traditional calligraphy
Traditional Arabic calligraphy
Age: 1st century BC (circa. 2,000 years old)
Origin: Arabian Peninsula
Number of speakers: 274 million

The final ancient language to make it onto this list is Arabic, which dates back to the first century BC, making it about 2,000 years old.

The liturgical language of Islam, Arabic, originated on the Arabian Peninsula, and it is now spoken all over the Middle East and North Africa. There are more than 30 varieties of Arabic, some of which are so different they are mutually unintelligible. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is used to communicate between dialects, and it is the official language used for formal documents and literature. MSA is not spoken natively, but it is spoken when reciting prayers, in news bulletins, and in other formal contexts.

The Arabic language has influenced many other languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Spanish, and Urdu.

Overview: World’s oldest languages still spoken today

RankLanguageAgeNumber of speakers
1Egyptian4,600 years74.8 million
2Sanskrit3,500 years2 million
3Greek3,450 years13 million
4Chinese3,300 years1.13 billion
5Aramaic3,100 years1-2 million
6Hebrew3,000 years9 million
7Persian (Farsi)2,500 years130 million
8Tamil2,300 years86.4 million
9Korean2,100 years81.7 million
10Arabic2,000 years274 million
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