What’s the world’s oldest language?

By | August 25, 2023

Lucy Tu writes:

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.” [Continue reading…]

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