One of the most requested video topics that I have received on The Polyglot Files YouTube channel has to do with one language in particular: Tamil. According to some, it is the oldest language in the world.
To be clear, the theory is that Tamil is not only the oldest surviving language that is still spoken in the modern day, but also that it is the first language humans ever spoke. This means that whichever origin theory you subscribe to, whether modern humans are descendants of evolution, some great creator, or aliens, Tamil was the first language on Earth.
But is that true?
Today we find out.
An Introduction to Tamil
Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken by 70 million speakers mostly in Southern India and Sri Lanka. Currently, it is a recognized language for the province of Tamil Nadu in India as per the Eighth Schedule as well as an official language of Sri Lanka. It is a Dravidian language and, it is related to other Dravidian languages such as Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada, three languages we spoke about in the “Languages of India” video.
The Legend of Tamil
Tamil’s origin story, like the origin stories of many other languages, is shrouded in myth. According to legend, the Tamil language is personified by the deity Tamil Thai which was brought to the people of Earth by the deity Murugan, the god of war and victory.
In fact, according to scholar R. Mathivanan, the former Chief Editor of the Tamil Etymological Dictionary Project of the Government of Tamil Nadu, the Tamil language first appeared somewhere around 200,000 BCE. If Mr. Mathivanan is correct, that would in fact make Tamil the oldest language on Earth.
It is also theorized that all humans spoke Tamil at one point. According to Alex Collier, Tamil was the original human language, but as humans evolved, we became too powerful. Threatened by us, extraterrestrials came from outer space and taught us a multitude of alien languages to confuse us.
It is worth noting, however, that Alex Collier not a linguist and has no real scientific background: instead, he claims he has been in repeated contact with blue aliens called the Andromedans. It’s also important to point out that many people have accused Alex Collier of being a fraud and a conman for decades, and Alex Collier may not even be his real name.
What the Science Says About Tamil
But what does the current scientific evidence say about Tamil and its age? Unfortunately, not too much. Since we know Tamil is a Dravidian language, it is assumed that Tamil descended from a Proto-Dravidian ancestor spoken around 5000 years ago in about the year 3000 BCE. It then supposedly evolved into Proto-South Dravidian, Tamil’s common ancestor with Malayalam, around 2500 BCE, and then we have the appearance of a proto-Tamil around 500 to 300 BCE.
But what do we mean when we say “proto-Dravidian” or “proto-Tamil”? Well, a proto-language is one that is hypothesized have existed sometime in the past that gave rise to a present language.
And that’s where the complication starts.
When something is a proto-language, such as in the case of proto-Dravidian or pre-Tamil, we are hypothesizing about a language that probably existed but that we have no written record of. That being said, according to research, we do not have any attestations, namely written accounts of proto-Dravidian or proto-Tamil: we have only what linguists and researchers hypothesize the languages might have sounded like.
In fact, the first written account of a Dravidian language is actually Tamil, but this written account dates back to only around 500 to 300 BCE. This comes from instances of Tamil-Brahmi script which was found on cave walls in the province of Tamil Nadu in southern India. This script also serves as evidence of Tamil Sangam literature which is postulated to have existed in oral form for hundreds of thousands of years.
However, despite that, we can only make the following conclusions:
- Tamil’s first written account dates back to between 500 and 300 BCE. This means that Tamil can only be concretely proven to have existed around the year 500 to 300 BCE.
- This written account does not mean that the Tamil language itself started being spoken in 500 BCE. The Tamil language may have be way older. In fact, we know that spoken language always comes first, so Tamil is older than 500 BCE. We just don’t have written records of Tamil earlier than that time.
- While our second conclusion means that Tamil may still be in the running for the oldest spoken language in the world, there are many other languages that have written forms that date back to a earlier date than Tamil does. For example:
- Written Sumerian dates back to 3500 BCE.
- Egyptian Hieroglyphics date back to 3300 BCE.
- We have written accounts of Akkadian, Hittite, Mycenaean Greek, Chinese, Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Persian, and even Latin that date back to a time before Tamil’s first written accounts.
So, Is Tamil the Oldest Language on Earth?
Despite what the science says, there may be a reason why we don’t have earlier written accounts of Tamil. According to Sangam literature, there was once a great ancient Tamil continent called Kumari Kandam that existed between 30,000 and 16,000 BCE. Unfortunately, Kumari Kandam was swallowed up by the Indian Ocean, presumably taking ancient written accounts of the Tamil language with it. If Kumari Kandam did, in fact, exist, that would mean that the Tamil language was written down before 300 BCE, but such records have been lost.
So, with all that being said, is Tamil the oldest language in the world? Well, frankly, I don’t know: it depends which argument you are most persuaded by. In my opinion, even with written record, I’m not sure we can ever know what the oldest language in the world is unless we build a time machine and go back to figure it out for ourselves. There is just no way to know what language the first utterances of humanity was, especially considering humans started speaking anywhere between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago.
Unless YOU have built a time machine, and you’ve travelled back in time and then returned to this blog post in order to set the record straight. In which case, I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
But in the meantime, what do you think? Is Tamil the oldest language in the world? Which side of the debate are you on? Write me a comment below.