How old is your language?

When researching the background of the Siraiki language, which I’ve just added to Omniglot, I came across a claim that this language might be “the oldest language … of the world”. The arguments in support of this claim don’t appear to be particularly credible, but it’s interesting that the text includes such an assertion.

An article I came across in The Hindu News today describes the efforts being made be the Official Language Commission of Andhra Pradesh to obtain classical status for Telugu. In the article claims are made that the Telugu language is much older than generally accepted, and therefore should be considered a classical language.

Antiquity seems to confer special status on languages and those who speak them. However from a linguistic point of view, no language is older or younger than any other language, and asking the question, “How old is x language?” makes little sense.

Languages change all the time and when you look at the history of a particular language, you can’t say with any degree of certainity exactly when it first appeared. For example, English developed from the Germanic languages of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, but this was a gradual process that occured over a period of many centuries. People didn’t just wake up one morning and all start speaking English rather than Angle, Saxon, etc.

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12 Responses to How old is your language?

  1. Polly says:

    Is “Old English” like in Beowulf considered “English?”

    What would be the test: mutually intelligible (possibly untestable), some sort of grammatical analysis, or vocabulary composition? Or something else?

    I can’t understand the writing. But, than again, some people can’t understand Elizabethan English, either. So, comprehensibility may be too subjective.

  2. Weili says:

    I agree, it is difficult, and rather pointless, to claim the age of a language as it is a living thing and is constantly changing.

  3. Polly says:

    BTW – Who needs writing? The main purpose of writing was to preserve the words of a living speaker in communicating those words across long distances and/or time. As technology advances, we no longer need to “encode” our language in arcane symbols. We can simply record our actual voices and save and send them. We even have books on tape.

    Will writing itself ever become extinct (except as a kind of sign language for the deaf)?

  4. Weili says:

    I doubt writing will ever become “extinct”. There are many advantages for written text over hearing spoken words, the first thing that comes to mind is that I, along with most people, can read MUCH faster than they can “hear” if only because people can only speak so fast.

    Also, when reading, you can skip around and still have a good idea of the whole “picture”. Have you ever tried fast forward or rewind a tape only to miss the spot you want or not even sure what’s coming up?

    As for getting rid of “arcane symbols”, it’s easier said than done. There is a reason why Japanese are still using Kanji today and Chinese are still using Hanzi.

  5. I agree that it is a bit odd that some languages are considered “older” than others (Lithuanian is perhaps a good example), since all are technically the same age, as you pointed out.

    However, languages do change at different rates, and while some languages branch out as they change, such as Latin, others remain a single tongue. From this perspective, you could say that languages such as Greek are “older” than, say, Spanish or French, since the single Greek langauge never split as did Latin, although it has changed.

  6. Polly says:

    Weili – Real life is on your side. People haven’t abandoned writing. Although, I believe technology will overcome those objections, it won’t make any difference. People use e-mail instead of voice mail and send TEXT messages. It seems like a huge inconvenience to type on those cellphone keypads. Every time we invent a new technology that gives us the potential to unshackle ourselves from print, we drag our writing with us. Humans have a very bizarre predilection for writing. I think it has to do with a need for privacy and intimacy.
    (The irony of my argument is that I am typing and I would never participate in a “call-in” blog.)

    Will technology preserve our language in its current state any better than stone tablets now that future generations are guaranteed to HEAR it and not just read it?

  7. SamD says:

    I like the statement that no language is older than any other language. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that Siriaki has stayed more or less in its current form than any other language.

    I’m not sure that a language that is “only” 1000 years old is somehow better or more respectable than a language that is 5000 years old.

    I don’t expect to see writing become extinct, at least not for a very long time. However, I would not be surprised to see the written varieties of languages as we now know them to look really different in a century or two just as the spoken varieties are changing. I don’t have enough of a long history with any language other than English to make any guesses, but one trend I see the apostrophe as an endangered mark of punctuation.

  8. This raises a question about the rate of change we can expect in English and in other languages in widespread use these days. I say “widespread” to suggest languages used in at least some nations/areas where there is sufficient education to standardize the language. Given all of the technology we have to “freeze” the language as it is, is there any evidence that we have slowed the rate of change in comparison to, say, the Middle Ages? Besides the apostrophe, what other changes could we really expect with English (assuming no drastic shifts in the political situation such as a takeover of a major, English-speaking nation)?

  9. Benjamin says:

    Hm, so the apostrophe is dying out in written English? Like “dont” and “Im”, instead of “don’t” and “I’m”?

    Funny thing, because in German the complete opposite is the case: Everyone seems to love apostrophes and put them just everywhere; some use it to mark genitive form of a name, which is correct in English, but not German (not yet…) or some use it for plural to separate the s from the rest of the word, especially in abbreviations: CD’s and stuff.

    In some way, the apostrophe yet is dying out at the same time, due to its look-a-likes, the accents ´ and `. The main reason for the first accent is, that people tend to write everything in lower case, not using shift-key, which is needed for writing an apostrophe on a German keyboard, while ´ doesn’t. The second accent however DOES need the shift-key, so its usage is simply due to stupidity or strangeness or whatever. ;-)

    Strangely most people don’t even know or notice that an accent is NOT the correct punctuation mark although… Simon´s homepage… Omniglot`s content – come on, that just looks soooo awful and just wrong.
    It remains a mystery to me, how one can’t see that…

  10. Polly says:

    Benjamin – That explains American usage of the apostrophe as well. We use it to indicate plurals where no apostrophe is needed.
    It just looks wrong not to put an apostrophe in “CD’s”, “DVD’s”, etc.. I do it, knowing that it’s wrong, because it looks better and makes it clear that the “s” is not part of the word or acronym.
    I remember my High School English teacher showing us a slideshow of misused apostrophe’s…oop’s there I go again! :)

  11. Tomensnaben says:

    What I always wondered is why Old English is considered a form of English, and Latin isn’t considered a form of Italian, when they’re far more similar…

  12. SamD says:

    Benjamin,

    I teach English composition. I see apostrophes used to form plurals much more often than I see them in places where they belong. My students often write such things as “wont” (sic) and “theyre” (sic). It’s not just initials such as CDs and DVDs that get the apostrophe. People will write things such as “there are many reason’s why this should be done.”