When was the first written language developed?

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Writing < Prehistory < History

What is the oldest known written language?

The oldest known written language is Sumerian, which emerged around 3400-3000 BCE in modern-day Iraq. It has roots going back even further into prehistory–a time before surviving written record. It was written in cuneiform script, where wedge-shaped symbols were pressed into clay tablets.

Two other contenders for the oldest written language are Egyptian and the Indus Valley script. Surviving hieroglyphics date back to around 3200 BCE for Egypt, and the Indus script dates back to around 3500 BCE. However, the Indus script has not yet been deciphered, so little is known about the secrets still hidden within this language. These languages represent early efforts at recording human speech and thought.

The oldest language still in use today is Tamil. It is a classical language with a rich literary tradition that dates back over 2,000 years. Tamil is spoken by millions of people, primarily in Tamil Nadu (an Indian state), Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore. It remains a vibrant and actively used language, both in daily communication and in literary contexts.

Much later, other ancient languages developed and some are still in use today. Greek has a documented history spanning about 3,500 years, and Chinese has written records dating back to around 1250 BCE. Later languages like Hebrew and Sanskrit have rich histories going back to 1000 BCE and 1500 BCE, respectively.

For a deeper dive to the very beginning, take the deep dive: The Evolution of Vocabulary in Ancient Humans.

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