What is the oldest language in the world?
Was Irish invented in the twentieth century? Did Galician emerge in the nineteenth century? Of course not, but some say so. Why? And, by the way, what is the oldest language in the world? Is it Basque?
From Irish to Galician
Languages are a physical manifestation of the identity of each and every one of us — that’s why discussions about languages are a prodigious source of fiery words, raised pulses, faces flushed with indignation and fingers drumming impatiently in a rush to respond.
Months ago, Gaston Dorren, author of the blog Language Writer and the book Lingo (which I highly recommend!), told us how he got into a Twitter discussion between two Irishmen: a Unionist and a Republican… The Unionist said that the Irish language was an invention of the 20th century. It got heated, and the other man fired: shut up, man! Irish is older than English!
There are also discussions like this further south. Not long ago I saw (and got involved in) a very heated discussion between some Galicians and a mad Portuguese twitterer who insisted that Galician was invented in the nineteenth century! One of the Galicians answered back, in a “hold me back!”-manner, that Galician is older than Portuguese.
Who is right?
In a way, nobody — but whoever says Galician was invented in the nineteenth century is more wrong than the others.
You will have imagined that the answer would not be simple — but perhaps it will be surprising to see why…
Languages are not born, they emerge
We walk around with a certain idea of what a language is, which compels us to compare it to a person: it is born, it evolves, sometimes it dies. This metaphor serves us in many cases. But in others, it gives rise to rather misguided ideas.
Regarding the origin of the Romance languages, the general idea is this: there was a stabilised language (Latin), which broke down and gave rise to embryos of other languages. These embryos eventually resulted in national languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc. — these languages have developed till they reached the pinnacles of the golden ages of their literary traditions.
Well, this idea is not completely false — but it is misleading. To understand this in depth, we have to do something: we must forget written language. Let us just think, for the moment, about the language spoken on the street.
Imagine in the time of Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal — or even before. Imagine what was spoken in the streets of Portugal 100 or 200 years before it was made an independent kingdom.
In writing, Latin prevailed. There was no name for the language people actually spoke. However, was the language of the people worse than the language of Portuguese people nowadays, or rather, less capable of expressing emotions or incapable of allowing for conversations, love, agreements?
It doesn’t seem probable: after all, no one has ever found a language that limits their speakers, or prevents them from feeling this or that emotion. Notice, in the language that comes from the mouths of people speaking right now, the extraordinary variety and richness of the words we use, even those who can hardly write. Yes, I know that there are those who aren’t so eloquent, but in general we know how to convince, discuss, mock, play, date — sometimes we write a whole novel with the mere intonation of a voice in a simple phrase… Sometimes we insinuate such naughtiness with a little interjection said in a certain way…
Jokes in the playground… Quarrels between couples… Old stories told to grandchildren… Deep conversations on the terrace… Strategic meetings in a company… The words leave our mouths every minute and serve us for everything.
This ability to talk and to live did not diminish when the Roman Empire disappeared. There was never a time when the language ceased to be a full-fledged language in the brain of each speaker.
In the same way, the Romans had already received their language from what had come before — and so we continue.
That is, there is not a moment when we can say: this language was born today. In general, language is transmitted without radical cuts across generations.
As Gaston Dorren explained in the discussion I spoke of, English and Irish have no age. They are both as old as human language.
So what about Basque? Isn’t it older than Spanish?
Now, you are getting sceptical: this is all well and good, but the truth is that today the Spaniards speak a language that is very different from Latin — while, for example, the Basques speak the same language as they did 7000 years ago! In other words, Basque is older than Spanish, French, Portuguese… There are even those who say that it is the oldest language in the world.
Let’s stay away from written language. Let’s just think about what is spoken. Now, Basque has changed as much or perhaps more than Latin in the nearly 2000 years that separate us from the Romans (and Latin itself never stopped changing during the Empire — even Cicero would complain about the language of the streets…).
Basque changed — and split into different languages, just like Latin. The Basque spoken at home in different regions of the Basque country has differences as stark as the differences between the various Romance languages.
The official Basque taught in schools is Batua Basque, a standard — a written and formal record and a literary language — based on central Basque dialects (but with some contributions from other dialects). It’s only natural that Basques tried to create a unified language — it would be more difficult to protect and promote Basque if it were a collection of languages incomprehensible to each other.
In other words, Basque did not remain unchanged and indivisible for millennia, alongside languages born from Latin. Basically, the Basque situation is similar to what would happen in an alternative universe in which we try to resuscitate Latin like this: we institutionalise the French dialect, change the vocabulary and grammar a bit to bring it closer to the other Latin dialects — and we call this standard “Latin”. At home, people speak something like Portuguese, Spanish, Italian for centuries — until schools, television and urbanisation begin to spread the new institutionalised Latin standard throughout the New Roman Empire (in this alternative universe, southern Europe is unified in one state). In present-day Lisbon, grandparents still speak the dialect of the land (the Portuguese of our universe). The younger generations, however, already use Latin (the French of our universe), except when they talk to their grandparents.
Seem strange? It is strange. But this is what happens in the Basque Country — which has the additional complication of having another language in competition with this system of incomprehensible dialects and a common standard (called, by the way, euskera batua) — I’m speaking about Spanish, of course.
Has Greek survived for millennia?
There is also the case of Greek. It has kept the same name since Antiquity — is it not obvious that it’s older than Portuguese?
In fact, a Greek person of today will have as many or perhaps more difficulties reading an Ancient Greek text than a Portuguese person reading a Latin text.
From the nineteenth century until the 1970s there was an attempt to bring Modern Greek closer to Ancient Greek, to impose an artificial literary language with some classical forms. This artificial language is called katharevousa, as opposed to Demotic Greek, that is, the Greek of the street that is now official.
The fights were terrible — there were deaths! The Greek language is sacred for the Greeks and katharevousa was a manifestation of the tendency to sacralize the language of the past as more perfect and genuine (a universal tendency).
The modern Greek standard ended up breaking free from this and today the official language is closer to the language of the street. Some are still wishing for the return of the old language, but the truth is that Greek didn’t freeze in antiquity and is very different from Ancient Greek. Trying to keep it as it was then is an inglorious effort that only harms the Greeks.
All languages are like this — they change constantly. Admittedly, sometimes they are abrupt transitions. For example, when a population adopts the language of another population as its own — the language often jumps through an accelerated simplification. But even so, a population does not create its language out of thin air — a language is not born: it becomes. (Curiously, it is never born, but it can die.)
When does a language become another language?
I spoke of Basque and Greek to say this: it is almost impossible to determine the age of a language.
If we use the criterion of the name of the language or even its permanence in the same territory, it means we consider that Modern Greek and Ancient Greek are the same language. It doesn’t make much sense: the linguistic differences are comparable to the differences between Latin and French.
If we find that one language is born the moment it separates from another, and there is no mutual understanding, then we will have to speak of several Basque languages — and all of them quite recent. Regarding Portuguese, in this case, it would have appeared when it separated, for example, from Galician — and when was that? Has it already happened?
Languages are like those bacteria that multiply through division: new bacteria appear, it’s true, but none is older than the other — none is the mother of the other. Languages are weird that way.
Someone will say, well, the language is born when the first written documents appear. It is an appealing criterion — it is concrete, it is physical, we can point to a specific date. But if it is so, then most human languages were never born: they were never written.
Basically, the point at which we begin to tell the history of a language is always a choice. It is always quite arbitrary.
Journey to the beginning of language
All this may be true, but what matters to many is the standard associated with written — and formal — language, that is, the particular record based on the speech of a particular zone or social group, usually the elite that inhabits the most important cities of each country.
In other words, when we ask what is the age of a language, we are asking the age of the written and literary tradition of that language. At this point, we can have some dates: the date when Portuguese became official; the date that Galician began being used in literature; the date that Irish gained a written standard…
It is this association between language and written standard that justifies anyone considering Irish to be a recent language — the Irish have spoken it for millennia, but their current written standard is more recent — however, this way of looking at history is quite misleading: the Irish have been speaking this language for a long time, although now it is only surviving in particular areas.
This strict (and wrong) association between language and written standard also explains why there are those who consider Galician an “invention” of the nineteenth century: modern Galician literature was reborn in that century — but even so, to say that Galician was born in the 19th century would mean ignoring that there had already been much older texts written in the language of the Galicians.
I am interested in the history of the written use of languages, but it hides so much — so much that is so interesting!
I like to wonder how Portuguese didn’t just appear from nowhere when the first documents showed up — even though it is very difficult to be certain about what happened before.
I like to wonder how the word “mother” came from the Indo-European “méh₂tēr,” a form reconstructed from a language that no one wrote.
I like to wonder how those Indo-Europeans never called themselves that and never wrote the word “méh₂tēr” — but in whatever form, the word “mother” existed in the mouths of real people who perceived and felt their language how we feel ours.
I like to wonder how this “méh₂tēr” will also have come from another older “mother”, until we arrive at the day when someone first said the word “mother” (but we will talk about this in another article).
Language and clay
Human language, in all its variability, is like clay, always mouldable and always becoming something else. Every once in a while, someone picks up a piece of this clay and bakes a standard language — but on the street people continue to play with the same material, changing the shape of the language until the rigid form of the standard breaks and has to to be replaced by another. Fortunately, the standard doesn’t have to be so rigid, and it is good that it’s not, since only then do we guarantee that it doesn’t go the way of katharevousa.
Note: the standard is not invented out of thin air — you have to use the linguistic materials that already exist. The standard is a force that acts on these materials, sometimes as a conscious political act, with more or less success, sometimes through unconscious mechanisms of approximation to the speech of the elite. There were Greeks who tried to mould the clay to resemble the Ancient Greek — they failed, though some words of this artificial standard survived. The Basques now teach a unified language and this process has been going well. Curiously, the language of the Galicians and the Portuguese lived for centuries under different standards, but the common material is still there, allowing both people to understand each other, even without noticing how similar the clay is on both sides of the border.
Well, let us return to our question: what is the oldest language in the world? The only reasonable answer is to explain that languages don’t have an age, as Gaston Dorren says. Languages change, go through phases, become subject to different standards, blend and influence each other. Along this complex course, we give them names and adopt them as flags of our identities. Therefore, it’s natural that we want to know when the flags were created.
It is natural, in the same way, that a Portuguese person wants to know if Spanish is an older language than their own — but the answer, once again, can only be this: none of them were born, they were just moulded over the centuries, from previous materials, in a process that began many millennia ago — and keeps going!
The language that you have in your head is as old as the language of all other human beings. We all speak what resulted from the uninterrupted succession of people speaking from the beginning of time — and so we will continue, with words in our mouths, endlessly moulding them, for many good centuries.