The World’s Five Oldest Written Languages


If History is written by the winners, then Archaeology tells us how things actually were – unsullied by the duplicitous meaning of the written word. The trowel, it might be said, never lies! But without writing, there would be no archaeological recording, no archaeological science, and of course no archaeological books, journals, newspapers (or Blogs!) for us to share our fascinating discoveries.

But when, where, and how did writing start? Aisling Serrant – (the only one of us able to read ancient Akkadian and Sumerian!) – introduces us to the five earliest written languages.

The Origins of Writing

Next time you’re filling in a form or queuing for a permit, it’s worth bearing in mind that without bureaucracy, we would never have invented writing and crucially made the resulting leap in our cultural evolution. The origins of ‘proto-writing’ can be traced back to Ice Age cave art, but full writing – defined as ‘a system of graphic symbols that can be used to convey any and all thought’ – is the invention of a complex, bureaucratic civilisation.

Theories abound on the origins of writing, but the first step on the journey is thought to have begun in the 9th millennium BC with the beginnings of agriculture. Numerous clay tokens have been found on excavations in the Middle East dating to this period, and these have been interpreted as counting devices, so that one coin shaped token carved with a cross would equal one sheep.  By the second half of the 4th millennium BC these tokens were enveloped by clay ‘bullae’ (Latin for ‘bubble’) on which symbols representing the contents were scratched. As trade developed, clay tokens and bullae were eventually replaced with flat tablets, as three-dimensional tokens began to be substituted by two-dimensional symbols.

This system was simplified and refined so that by around 3000 BC, the scribes abbreviated their scratching’s to bring not just the idea of an object to mind, but also the sounds of the words. These could be combined with other elements (which were now letters) and abstract words could be spelled, even if it was not something you could visually represent as a symbol. With so much to record – battles, deeds, directions, payments – writing soon began to be used in a multitude of different ways… and the rest, as they say, is history!

The Five Oldest Written Languages

1. Sumerian


When: c.3400 – 1 AD

Where: Southern Mesopotamia   

Sumerian is the oldest attested written language. It was used by the people of Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia and is an isolate language, which means it’s not related to any other existing language. Sumerian continued to be used in written documents, usually in legal and administrative contexts, well after the spoken language was taken over by Akkadian, the date of which is still debated today.

2. Egyptian Hieroglyphics


When: 3200 BC – 400 AD 

Where: Egypt    

The symbols used in Hieroglyphics represented objects that actually existed in Ancient Egyptian life, with sentences for example composed from symbols for plants, body parts and birds. The key to their translation was the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 (see the main image above) which has the same message inscribed in Hieroglyphics, Egyptian Demotic and Greek.

3.  Akkadian


When: 2500 BC – 1st C AD

Where: Mesopotamia

Akkadian is a Semitic language, which originated in northern Mesopotamia and in time spread to encompass the whole country, finally taking over from Sumerian. The cuneiform script it uses was adapted from Sumerian script, resulting in many borrowed words and lexical merging.  It developed into the lingu franca of the Ancient Near East but began to be replaced by Aramaic in the 8th century BC.

4. Eblaite


When:  c. 2400 BC – 550 BC 

Where: Ebla (modern western Syria)

Eblaite is very similar to Akkadian and also written using cuneiform script. Some scholars believe it may in fact be a dialect of Akkadian, whereas others argue it is a separate ‘sister’ language.  In the past it has sometimes been defined as an archaic Akkadian dialect but is now widely agreed to be a stand-alone member of the East Semitic language group. It is known from 15, 000 tablets found mostly at the city of Ebla.

5. Elamite


When: ca. 2300 – 331 BC

Where: Modern day Iran

Elamite is also an isolate language and its interpretation is difficult. Its script was adapted from Akkadian and contains 130 symbols, fewer than most other scripts. The Elamite kingdom was the most influential kingdom to the east of Mesopotamia, until the arrival of the First Persian Empire in the 5th century BC.

So now you’re all experts, can anyone translate (or guess!) this well known Hieroglyphic? Write your answers below… (extra marks for cuneiform, but English perfectly acceptable!)

Mystery Hieroglyphics

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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