The hardest problem in science is how experts in diverse fields including linguistics, archaeology and anthropology call the search for the oldest language among humans. Although the origin of language in humans has been the subject of heated debates and discussions for several centuries, scholars have yet to accept a general consensus on when, how and why of the oldest language’s origins.
What makes the study of the origins of ancient language so difficult even when brilliant minds from diverse fields are getting their heads together? Several reasons can be given, of which the most notable is the lack of direct evidence on the existence of human language since skeletons cannot talk and words cannot be fossilized.
Scholars on the origin of the oldest language must then make inferences from related evidence such as the diversity of languages in the modern world, the comparisons between primate and human communication systems, and the fossil record including archaeological evidence of language. These are all circumstantial in many ways and, thus, scholars can only draw inferences subject to discussions but not make conclusions set in stone.
Despite these drawbacks, nonetheless, most linguists assume that humans developed full language capacity around 100,000 B.C. Such conclusion was drawn from the observation that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) had the bone structure in their skulls, among other features, essential for language capacity. These included a modern skull shape, which indicated more sophisticated brain functions, coupled with a vocal tract suitable for language.
Again, these are all inferences made in the search for the truly oldest language in modern man and his ancestors.
Scholars on ancient language, however, have categorized languages based on several criteria. It must be emphasized that these categories are not the general consensus among linguists, anthropologists and archaeologists, among other scholars, but said categorization makes it easy to shed light on the controversial subject.
The answer to the question of, ”What is the oldest language known to man” varies depending on the following categories:
- In terms of evidence in written form, then the Sumerian language is the oldest at 2,900 B.C. via its cuneiform writing. The Egyptian language comes in a close second at 2,700 B.C. via the hieroglyphs seen in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen. The Akkadian language is dated at circa 2,400 B.C. Although China’s writing system was not fully developed until the Shang dynasty 1600BC – 1046BC, some symbols resembling today’s chinese characters have been found in the Henan province and are suggested to date all the way back to about 6500BC. The rationale for using written form as a basis for determining the most ancient language is that man must have spoken and then written their words in order to spread it. Many scholars, however, consider said criteria as irrelevant because speaking is not equal to writing and vice versa.
For example, the Albanian language has been spoken probably for several millennia and yet it has been a written language only for about 500 years.
- In terms of the oldest spoken languages, an obvious place to look for is the birthplace of humanity on the African continent. Kohisan or various click languages might be one of the oldest languages in terms of being spoken.
- In terms of longest use in a region, Basque may well be the oldest in Spain and France in the same way that Welsh is in Great Britain, but this is not generally accepted either as population movements and the changes wrought on the language cannot be considered a valid criterion.
These are just three of the categories that scholars use to determine the oldest language known to man, and these barely scratch the surface. The most important thing is that man uses language to communicate with his fellowmen in ways that protect their common interests, peace, protection of the planet, and progress, among others.