- "Ancient Language" redirects here. For other uses, see ancient language (disambiguation).
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. 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 are dated to ca. 1500 BC, while the oldest known manuscript dates to the 11th century AD, corresponding to a gap of approximately 2,500 years.
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
A very limited number of languages are attested from before the Bronze Age collapse and the rise of alphabetic writing: The Sumerian, Hurrian, Hattic and Elamite language isolates, Afro-Asiatic in the form of the Egyptian and a number of ancient Semitic languages, and Indo-European (Anatolian languages, Mycenaean Greek and traces of Indo-Aryan). There are a number of undeciphered Bronze Age records, possibly encoding a Minoan (Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A), a Proto-Elamite and a "Harappan language" (Indus script).
|c. 3200 BC||Sumerian||Jemdet Nasr||see Sumerian cuneiform; "proto-literate" period from about 3500 BC (see Kish tablet)|
|c. 2800 BC||Akkadian||Tell Harmal||attested in Sumerian texts in proper names from about 2800 BC. fragments of the Legend of Etana at Tell Harmal c. 2600 BC.|
|c. 2700 BC||Egyptian||tomb of Seth-Peribsen (2nd Dynasty, Umm el-Qa'ab||see Egyptian hieroglyphs; "proto-hieroglyphic" inscriptions from about 3300 BC (Naqada III; see Abydos, Egypt, Narmer Palette)|
|c. 2400 BC||Eblaite|
|c. 2250 BC||Elamite||Awan dynasty peace treaty with Naram-Sin|
|c. 2000 BC||Hurrian||fragmentary, known only from a few glosses in Hittite texts|
|c. 1800 BC||Luwian||Luwian hieroglyphs|
|1700s BC||Minoan||Linear A inscriptions||c. 1625 BC: Minoan archival documents written in Cretan hieroglyphs|
|c. 1650 BC||Hittite||Various cuneiform texts and Palace Chronicles written during the reign of Hattusili I, from the archives at Hattusas||see Hittite cuneiform, Hittite texts|
|c. 1500 BC||Canaanite||Proto-Canaanite alphabet|
|c. 1425 - 1375 BC||Greek||Linear B tablet archive from Bronze Age Knossos|
|c. 1400 BC||Hattic||known only from Hittite texts|
|c. 1300 BC||Ugaritic||see Ugaritic alphabet|
|c. 1200 BC||Chinese||Oracle bone script and bronze inscriptions||Because of the logographic nature of the Chinese script, it is difficult to date the age of the oldest Chinese texts, and the Shi Jing may date to as early as 1000 BC, which would still correspond to the Chinese Bronze Age. Old Chinese is a reconstructed language, dependent on the reconstruction of Middle Chinese.|
First millennium BC
With the appearance of alphabetic writing in the Early Iron Age, the number of attested languages increases. With the emergence of the Brahmic family of scripts, languages of India were thought to be attested from after about 300 BC. Recent evidence found in 2004 at Adichanallur, an archaeological site near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, India dates the Tamil Brahmi script to after about 800 BC .
- Phoenician - about 1000 BC
- Aramaic - c. 950 BC
- Hebrew - c. 950 BC: Gezer calendar
- Phrygian - c. 800 BC
- Moabite - c. 800 BC
- Ammonite - c. 800 BC
- Old North Arabian - c. 800 BC
- Old South Arabian - c. 800 BC
- Etruscan - c. 700 BC
- Umbrian - c. 600 BC
- North Picene - c. 600 BC
- Lepontic - c. 600 BC
- Tartessian - c. 600 BC
- Lydian - c. 600 BC
- Carian - c. 600 BC
- Eteocypriot - c. 600 BC
- Thracian c. 6th c.BC
- Venetic c. 6th c.BC
- Tamil - c. 600 Bc: Tamil [Tamil-Brahmi script unearthed at Adichanallu which is similar to indus valley civilization script.]
- Old Persian - 525 BC: Behistun inscription
- Latin - c. 500 BC: Duenos Inscription
- South Picene - c. 500 BC
- Messapian - c. 500 BC
- Gaulish - c. 500 BC
- Mixe-Zoque - c. 500 BC: Isthmian script (disputed)
- Oscan - c. 400 BC
- Iberian - c. 400 BC
- Meroitic - c. 300 BC
- Faliscan - c. 300 BC
- Mayan languages - c. between 300 BC and 200 BC
- Volscian - c. 275 BC
- Sanskrit, Prakrit - c. 260 BC: Edicts of Ashoka
- Galatian - c. 200 BC
- Celtiberian - c. 100 BC
- Korean - adoption of Hanja c. 100 BC, evidence of proto-Idu c. 500 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.
- Bactrian - - c. 150: Rabatak inscription
- Common Germanic/Proto-Norse - c. 160: Vimose inscriptions (c. 100 BC if the Negau helmet inscription is accepted as Germanic)
- Cham - c. 200
- Basque - c. 300: Iruña-Veleia archaeological site (allegedly forgery: see c. 1000 for the Glosas emilianenses)
- Gothic - c. 300: Gothic runic inscriptions
- Ge'ez - c. 300 (pre)-Ezana inscriptions
- Armenian - 395 - 405 Saint Mesrob Mashtots.
- Primitive Irish - c. 300-400: Ogham inscriptions
- Georgian - c. 430: a Georgian church in Bethlehem
- Kannada - c. 450: Halmidi inscription
- West Germanic - 6th century:
- Arabic - 512: pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions
- Cambodian - c. 600
- Tibetan - c. 600
- Udi - c. 600: Mount Sinai palimpsest M13
- Telugu - 620
- Old Malay - c. 683: Kedukan Bukit Inscription
- Tocharian - c. 700
- Old Turkic - c. 700 Orkhon
- Old Irish - c. 700
- Japanese - c. 700
- Welsh - c. 700: Tywyn inscriptions
- Old Frisian - c. 750
- Old Hindi - 769: Dohakosh by Saraha
- Malayalam - c. 800
- Mozarabic - c. 800
- Old Norse - c. 800 (runic)
- Javanese - 804
- Old French - c. 842: Oaths of Strasbourg
- Old Church Slavonic - c. 862
- Bengali Language -c. 900 charyapada
- Philippine languages (particularly Old Tagalog)- c. 900 Laguna Copperplate Inscription
- Leonese - c. 959-974: Nodicia de Kesos.
- Italian - c. 960-963: 
- Slovene - 972-1093: (Freising manuscripts)
- Hungarian - c. 1000: the Charter of the Nuns of Veszprémvölgy
- Balinese - c.1000
- Ossetic - c. 1000
- Marathi - c. 1000
- Newari - c 1000
- Basque (case of Iruña-Veleia, c. 300, being a forgery), Aragonese and Spanish - ca. 1000: Glosas Emilianenses
- Catalan - c. 1028: Jurament Feudal
- Middle High German - 1050 (by convention)
- Middle English - 1066 (by convention)
- Piedmontese - 1080
- Croatian - c. 1100: Baška tablet
- Danish - c. 1100 (by convention)
- Swedish - c. 1100 (by convention; the Rök Stone (c. 9th century) is often cited as the beginning of Swedish literature)
- Nepal Bhasa - 1114: "The Palmleaf from Uku Bahal"
- Middle Dutch - 1150 (by convention)
- Portuguese and/or Galician - 1189
- Serbian - between 1186 and 1190: The Gospels of Miroslav
- Bosnian - 1189: The Charter of Kulin
- Czech - c. 1200-1230
- Western Lombard - c. 1250: Sordello da Goito, "Sirventese lombardesco"
- Polish - c. 1270: Book of Henryków
- Yiddish - 1272
- Thai - c. 1292
- Old Norwegian - c. 1300
- Batak - c.1300
- Baltic-Finnic - c. 1300 Birch bark letter no. 292 (Finnish proper: Abckiria, 1543)
- Old Prussian - c. 1350
- Kashmiri - c. 1350
- Oghuz Turkic (including Azeri and Ottoman Turkish) - c. 1350 (Imadaddin Nasimi)
- Komi - 1372
- Korean - 1446 (Hunmin Jeongeum)
- Albanian - 1462 (Formula e Pagëzimit - Short baptismal formula in a letter of Archbishop Pal Engjëll)
- Maltese - c. 1470: Cantilena
- Early Modern English - 1470s (by convention)
- Tulu - c. 1500
|1521||Romanian||Neacşu's Letter.||The Cyrillic ortographic manual of Constantin Kostentschi from 1420 documents earlier written usage.  Four XVIth century documents, namely Codicele Voronetean, Psaltirea Scheiana, Psaltirea Hurmuzachi and Psaltirea Voroneteana, are arguably copies of XVth century originals.|
|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.|
|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.|
|ca. 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|
|ca. 1650||Ubykh||The Seyahatname of Evliya Çelebi.|
|ca. 1695||Seri||Grammar and vocabulary compiled by Adamo Gilg.||No longer known to exist.|
|1728||Swahili||Utendi wa Tambuka|
|1743||Chinese Pidgin English|
|1760||Greenlandic language||Kalaallisut is written with the Latin alphabet (Hans Edege)|
|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)|
|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)|
|1832||Gamilaraay||Basic vocabulary collected by Thomas Mitchell.|
|1833||Sesotho||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|
|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.|
|ca. 1900||Papuan languages|
|ca. 1900||Other Austronesian languages.|
|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|
Attestation by major language family:
- Afro-Asiatic: since about the 28th c. BC
- Hurro-Urartian: ca. 20th c. BC
- Indo-European: since about the 19th c. BC
- Sino-Tibetan: about 1200 BC
- Dravidian: 3rd c. BC
- Austronesian: 3rd c. AD
- Mayan: 3rd c. AD
- Basque: 4th c.[dubious ]
- South Caucasian: 5th c. (Georgian)
- Northeast Caucasian: 7th c. (Udi)
- Austro-Asiatic: 7th c. (Khmer)
- Altaic: 8th c.
- Nilo-Saharan: 9th c. (Old Nubian)
- Uralic/Finno-Ugric: 11th century
- Tai-Kadai: 13th c.
- Uto-Aztecan: 16th c.
- Quechuan: 16th c.
- Niger-Congo (Bantu): 18th c.
- Indigenous Australian languages: 18th c.
- Iroquoian: 19th c.
- Papuan languages: 20th c.
|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|
- EJVS 0703, Michael Witzel
- Andrew George, "Babylonian and Assyrian: A History of Akkadian", In: Postgate, J. N., (ed.), Languages of Iraq, Ancient and Modern. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, pp. 31-71.
- Clay, Albert T. (2003). Atrahasis: An Ancient Hebrew Deluge Story. Book Tree. p. 34. ISBN 9781585092284.
- Olivier 1986, pp. 377f.
- Shelmerdine, Cynthia. "Where Do We Go From Here? And How Can the Linear B Tablets Help Us Get There?" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-03-27.
- Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8.; William G. Boltz, Early Chinese Writing, World Archaeology, Vol. 17, No. 3, Early Writing Systems. (Feb., 1986), pp. 420–436 (436); David N. Keightley, "Art, Ancestors, and the Origins of Writing in China", Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition. (Autumn, 1996), pp.68–95 (68); John DeFrancis: Visible Speech. The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems: Chinese
- with earliest evidence of the presence of writing from the 6th century BC. (hindu.com article)
- Skeletons dating back 3800 years throw light on evolution. ()
- Rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script unearthed at Adichanallur. The Tolkāppiyam (Tamil: தொல்காப்பியம்) is a work on the grammar of the Tamil language and the earliest extant work of Tamil literature. It is written in the form of noorpaa or short formulaic compositions and comprises three books - the Ezhuttadikaram, the Solladikaram and the Poruladikaram. Each of these books is further divided into nine chapters each. While the exact date of the work is not known, based on linguistic and other evidence, it has been dated variously between the seven century BCE and the 10th century CE. ()
- Vine, Brent. "A Note on the Duenos Inscription" (PDF). Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- Rogers, Henry (2004). Writing Systems. Black Publishing. ISBN 0-6312-3464-0. p. 204
- Pollock, Sheldon (2003). The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. University of California Press. ISBN 0-5202-4500-8. p. 60
- "Onze Taal". Livios.org. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- "Oldest written English?". Cronaca.com.
- "History of the Italian language.". Retrieved 2006-09-24.
- Pollock, Sheldon (2003). The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. University of California Press. ISBN 0-5202-4500-8. p. 289
- Pollock, Sheldon (2003). The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. University of California Press. ISBN 0-5202-4500-8. p. 293
- MORAN, J. i J. A. RABELLA (ed.) (2001). Primers textos de la llengua catalana. Proa (Barcelona). ISBN 84-8437-156-5.
- Various texts, among which the Servaaslegende by Hendrik van de Veldeke
- 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.
- "Tulu Academy yet to realise its goal". The Hindu. The Hindu Group. November 13, 2004. Retrieved 2009-10-28.
- Istoria Romaniei in Date, 1971, p. 87
- Vers les sources des langues romanes: un itinéraire linguistique à travers la Romania, Eugeen Roegiest, ACCO, 2006, Apparition du Roumain standard écrit, p. 136
- Schwaller, John Frederick (1973). "A Catalogue of Pre-1840 Nahuatl Works Held by The Lilly Library". The Indiana University Bookman 11: 69–88.
- Marlett, Stephen A. (1981). "The Structure of Seri" (PDF).
- Austin, Peter K. The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) Language, northern New South Wales — A Brief History of Research
- Olivier, J.-P. (1986), "Cretan Writing in the Second Millennium B.C.", World Archaeology 17 (3): 377–389
- History of writing
- List of writing systems
- Genealogy of scripts derived from Proto-Sinaitic
- Undeciphered writing systems