List of languages by first written accounts

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This is a list of languages by first written accounts which consists of the approximate dates for the first written accounts that are known for various languages.

Because of the way languages change gradually, it is usually impossible to pinpoint when a given language began to be spoken. In many cases, some form of the language had already been spoken (and even written) considerably earlier than the dates of the earliest extant samples provided here.

There are also various claims regarding still-undeciphered scripts without wide acceptance, which, if substantiated, would push backward the first attestation of certain languages.

A written record may encode a stage of a language corresponding to an earlier time, either as a result of oral tradition, or because the earliest source is a copy of an older manuscript that was lost. An oral tradition of epic poetry may typically bridge a few centuries, and in rare cases, over a millennium. An extreme case is the Vedic Sanskrit of the Rigveda: the earliest parts of this text may date to c. 1500 BC,[1] while the oldest known manuscript dates to the 11th century AD, a gap of over 2,500 years. Similarly the oldest Avestan texts, the Gathas, are believed to have been composed before 1000 BC, but the oldest Avestan manuscripts date from the 13th century AD.[2]

For languages that have developed out of a known predecessor, dates provided here are subject to conventional terminology. For example, Old French developed gradually out of Vulgar Latin, and the Oaths of Strasbourg (842) listed are the earliest text that is classified as "Old French". Similarly, Danish and Swedish separated from common Old East Norse in the 12th century, while Norwegian separated from Old West Norse around 1300.

Before 1000 BC

Further information: Bronze Age writing
Seal impression from the tomb of Seth-Peribsen, containing the oldest known complete sentence in Egyptian

Writing first appeared in the Near East at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC. A very limited number of languages are attested in the area from before the Bronze Age collapse and the rise of alphabetic writing:

In East Asia towards the end of the second millennium BC, the Sino-Tibetan family was represented by Old Chinese. There are also a number of undeciphered Bronze Age records:

Date Language Attestation Notes
c. 2690 BC Egyptian Egyptian hieroglyphs in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen (2nd Dynasty), Umm el-Qa'ab[4] "proto-hieroglyphic" inscriptions from about 3300 BC (Naqada III; see Abydos, Egypt, Narmer Palette)
c. 2600–2500 BC Sumerian Cuneiform texts from Shuruppak and Abu Salabikh (Fara period)[5][6] "proto-literate" period from about 3500 BC (see Kish tablet); administrative records at Uruk and Ur from c. 2900 BC.
c. 2400 BC Akkadian A few dozen pre-Sargonic texts from Mari and other sites in northern Babylonia[7] Some proper names attested in Sumerian texts at Tell Harmal from about 2800 BC.[8] Fragments of the Legend of Etana at Tell Harmal c. 2600 BC.[9]
c. 2400 BC Eblaite Ebla tablets
c. 2300 BC[10] Elamite Awan dynasty peace treaty with Naram-Sin
c. 21st century BC Hurrian Temple inscription of Tish-atal in Urkesh[11]
c. 1650 BC Hittite Various cuneiform texts and Palace Chronicles written during the reign of Hattusili I, from the archives at Hattusa see Hittite cuneiform, Hittite texts
c. 1450 BC Greek Linear B tablet archive from Knossos[12][13][14]
c. 1400 BC Luwian Hieroglyphic Luwian monumental inscriptions, Cuneiform Luwian tablets in the Hattusa archives[15] Isolated hieroglyphs appear on seals from the 18th century BC.[15]
c. 1400 BC Hattic Hittite texts CTH 725–745
c. 1300 BC Ugaritic Tablets from Ugarit[16] see Ugaritic alphabet
c. 1200 BC Old Chinese Oracle bone and bronze inscriptions from the reign of Wu Ding[17][18][19]

First millennium BC

The earliest known alphabetic inscriptions, at Serabit el-Khadim (c. 1500 BC), appear to record a Northwest Semitic language, though only one or two words have been deciphered. In the Early Iron Age, alphabetic writing spread across the Near East and southern Europe. With the emergence of the Brahmic family of scripts, languages of India are attested from after about 300 BC. The earliest examples of the Central American Isthmian script date from c. 500 BC, but a proposed decipherment remains controversial.[20]

The Ahiram epitaph is the earliest substantial inscription in Phoenician.

First millennium AD

From Late Antiquity, we have for the first time languages with earliest records in manuscript tradition (as opposed to epigraphy). Thus, Old Armenian is first attested in the Armenian Bible translation.

1000–1500 AD

After 1500

Date Language Attestation Notes
1521 Romanian Neacşu's Letter. The Cyrillic orthographic manual of Constantin Kostentschi from 1420 documents earlier written usage.[49] Four 16th century documents, namely Codicele Voronetean, Psaltirea Scheiana, Psaltirea Hurmuzachi and Psaltirea Voroneteana, are arguably copies of 15th century originals.[50]
1530 Latvian
1535 Estonian
1539 Classical Nahuatl Breve y mas compendiosa doctrina cristiana en lengua mexicana y castellana Possibly the first printed book in the New World. No copies are known to exist today.[51]
1543 Modern Finnish Abckiria by Mikael Agricola.
1547 Lithuanian Katekizmas by Martynas Mažvydas Katekizmas is the first printed book in Lithuanian. The earliest surviving text in Lithuanian is the hand-written Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary on a slip of paper dated between 1503 and 1525.
c. 1550 New Dutch/Standard Dutch Statenbijbel The Statenbijbel is commonly accepted to be the start of Standard Dutch, but various experiments were performed around 1550 in Flanders and Brabant. Although none proved to be lasting they did create a semi-standard and many formed the base for the Statenbijbel.
1554 Wastek A grammar by Andrés de Olmos.
1593 Modern Tagalog Doctrina Cristiana (Christian Doctrine), a book explaining the basic beliefs of Roman Catholicism
1600 Buginese
c. 1650 Ubykh
The Seyahatname of Evliya Çelebi.
1639 Guarani Tesoro de la lengua guaraní by Antonio Ruíz de Montoya
1692 Sakha (Yakut)
c. 1695 Seri Grammar and vocabulary compiled by Adamo Gilg. No longer known to exist.[52]
1728 Swahili Utendi wa Tambuka
1743 Chinese Pidgin English
1760 Greenlandic language Kalaallisut is written with the Latin alphabet (Hans Egede)
1770 Guugu Yimithirr Words recorded by James Cook's crew.
1806 Tswana Heinrich Lictenstein - Upon the Language of the Beetjuana First complete Bible translation in 1857 by Robert Moffat
1814 Māori language systematic orthography from 1820 (Hongi Hika)
1819 Cherokee
1823 Xhosa John Bennie’s Xhosa Reading sheet printed at Twali Complete Bible translation 1859
1826 Aleut language Aleut is written with the Cyrillic alphabet (loann Veniaminov)
c. 1830 Vai
1832 Gamilaraay Basic vocabulary collected by Thomas Mitchell.[53]
1833 Sotho Reduced to writing by French missionaries Casalis and Arbousset First grammar book 1841 and complete Bible translation 1881
1837 Zulu First written publication Incwadi Yokuqala Yabafundayo First grammar book 1859 and complete Bible translation 1883
1844 Afrikaans Letters by Louis Henri Meurant (published in Eastern Cape newspaper - South Africa) Followed by Muslim texts written in Afrikaans using Arabic alphabet in 1856. Spelling rules published in 1874. Complete Bible published 1933.
1870 Inuktitut Syllabary Inuktitut is written with the Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary alphabet/The Netsilik adopted Qaniujaaqpait by the 1920s.(Edmund Peck)
1872 Venda Reduced to writing by the Berlin Missionaries First complete Bible translation 1936
1880s Oromo Onesimos Nesib begins to translate European texts into Oromo Onesimos, with the help of Aster Ganno, prepared a translation of the Bible into Oromo, which was published in 1893
1885 Carrier language Barkerville Jail Text, written in pencil on a board in the then recently created Carrier syllabics Although the first known text by native speakers dates to 1885, the first record of the language is a list of words recorded in 1793 by Alexander MacKenzie.
c. 1900 Papuan languages
c. 1900 Other Austronesian languages.
1903 Lingala
1968 Southern Ndebele Small booklet published with praises of their kings and a little history Translation of the New Testament of the Bible completed in 1986 - translation of Old Testament ongoing
1984 Gooniyandi

By family

Attestation by major language family:

Constructed languages

Further information: constructed language
Date Language Attestation Notes
1879 Volapük created by Johann Martin Schleyer
1887 Esperanto Unua Libro created by L. L. Zamenhof
1907 Ido based on Esperanto
1917 Quenya created by J. R. R. Tolkien
1928 Novial created by Otto Jespersen
1935 Sona Sona, an auxiliary neutral language created by Kenneth Searight
1943 Interglossa Later became Glosa created by Lancelot Hogben
1951 Interlingua Interlingua-English Dictionary created by the International Auxiliary Language Association
1955 Loglan created by James Cooke Brown
1985 Klingon created by Marc Okrand
1987 Lojban based on Loglan, created by the Logical Language Group
2005-6 Na'vi created by Dr. Paul Frommer and James Cameron

See also


  1. ^ Alleged finds of c. 300 Basque inscriptions at Iruña-Veleia have been exposed as a forgery.
  2. ^ Various texts, among which the Servaaslegende by Heinrich von Veldeke
  3. ^ A few lines in the Bellifortis text have been interpreted as being Albanian. If this interpretation is correct, it would push the earliest attestation of the language back to 1405. See Elsie, Robert - The Bellifortis Text and Early Albanian.


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Works cited