Is Tamil the Oldest Language in the World?

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_Mother
“Tamil Thai” : Attribution: Sivanesh at en.wikipedia

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.


Related: Sanskrit & Armenian: Mothers of ALL Indo-European Languages?


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.

1997-004-D657BC29.jpg

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Kumari_Kandam_map
A map of Kumari Kandam as rendered by Dbachmann.

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.

10 thoughts on “Is Tamil the Oldest Language in the World?

Add yours

  1. Tamil is the mother of 21 Languages…

    And those tamil related languages even spoken in many countries

    It have only evidence Agastiyam found from 300 BCE…

    But if we do research by in under sea and archiological searches, then we found that…

    Before agathiyam(grammer of tamil) we have history that said in that purpose of agathiyam
    I say that in below…

    Agathiyam is a Grammar for the tamil language…

    It contains 5 parts
    *Ezuthu (Spoken Words/Letter)
    *Chol (Words)
    *Porul (Meaning for words)
    *Yappu (where to be present)
    *Ani (beautiful pronouncing)

    Here the agathiyam the writers who creates the grammar in olden days gives already pronouncing tamil language in proper manner for their students…

    In that agathiyam also said about southern part of country shrunked in sea and there was an old madurai place which contains 2 tamil sangam is held there…

    The Research in tamil nadu and all over the india, srilanka and even indian ocean makes the curiosity of tamil…

    The *agathiam* is the 300 BCE Evidence…

    But before that the peoples first spoken, writtern, step by step the words came, they named for everything…

    Then only they creates a grammer for tamil…

    The persons who creates the grammer for that language must know every words and he wants to skillfull in that language…

    Before the grammer, they said the purpose for the grammer that i said before, the tamil songs arangetram (become rural for all)
    Is full of mistaken tamil, so they makes the grammer for tamil

    So they was destroyed the mistaken languaged songs and creates grammer for tamil…

    Like

  2. I am from Sri Lanka, Sinhalese. As you already know where Sri Lanka is, I assume you have heard about the Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka. While the war continued for 30 years, the conflict continued a bit longer. The reason is Sinhalese and Tamils have two different history narratives for Sri Lanka. There is something peculiar about Tamil nationalism. They have the tendency to revise history to suit their political needs. According to Tamils, whole Indian subcontinent was once Tamil speaking and they equate the proto dravidian language to Tamil. And going by this logic they say Sri Lanka was a Tamil country. Now this is how ethnic conflict in SL started. How Tamils have revised history in SL to suit their agenda;

    1. They put an ‘n’ at the end of names of kings or deliberately change it to pronounce the names in a Tamil like fashion. For example King Kashyapa who built Sigiriya complex is a Tamil king named Kasi appan according to Tamil nationalists.
    2. They point at loop holes or weaknesses in the sources of history in SL.

    Like

  3. Firstly, this video reads out the facts mentioned in wikipedia…. in that case Mr.Michael has left out another fact mentioned in that wiki content….which says that the third tamil sangam period dates between 500 and 300 bce….there are evidences that two tamil sangams have existed pretty long before what the video calls the era of tamil language…..
    Secondly, just learning a language is not enough to judge it…
    Thirdly, are u a historian or have u done any research to determine the history of a language or to back your video…
    Lastly, conflicts in Sri Lanka, between Tamils and Sinhalese was due to tamil people’s tendency to manipulate history or Sinhalese inhumane activities?….do genocide, brutal rapes result due to language?

    Like

    1. Brutal rapes can result due to undisciplined peace keeping armies. That is why the Indian peace keeping army was called innocent people killing force. If you check even in Assam, Nagaland, Indian army is always accused of rapes. If you read Broken Palmyrah a record kept by Tamil scholars in Jaffna university about the 80s, it reveals gory details of rapes done by IPKF. In fact this record kept by Tamil scholars mentioned that Tamils had stated they did not experience such rapes and brutal violence even at the hand of Sri Lankan army whom they treated as their enemy.

      And I think you should read what genocide means in a dictionary and seek the definition of it in legal terms.

      Like

  4. Dear jay, I have a question for you. Sinhalese are saying themselves as the blood of king ravana who belongs to yaksha ethinicity..At the same time they are saying themselves as aryans because of king vijaya. If you are aryans you can’t be belongs to sri lanka because you were from India. If you are blood of ravana you brlongs to yaksha,then you can’t be aryans. which is you are?

    If king vijaya from north india could find sri lanka easily. Why could not south indians find it before (although sri lanka is more near to them)???

    The sinhala language(sinhalese prakrit) wasprakritround 3rd centuary.The what is the language yaksha and naga spoke..??

    thank you

    Like

    1. This is a reply to Sumar.

      There is a segment of pseudo historians in fact nonsense makers in Sri Lanka who think there was an ancient Sinhala king called Ravana. This belief exist among a small cult even when Ravana is NOT a historical figure and simply a myth in a Hindu epic. Even if Ravana described in Hindu epic is a historical figure, there is no evidence to say Sri Lanka was the island described in Ravana story. So those who say Ravana was a Sinhala king are just like Tamil is the first language and Sri Lanka is Tamil homeland myth makers. At least the claim of those pseudo Sinhala historians is not political when the latter makes the claim with a political agenda.

      While Sri Lanka currently have such nonsense history manufacturers, the official history had always remained in the hands of scholars who knew how to differentiate between facts based on evidence and mere hearsay.

      It is a accepted by all the historians that North Indian immigrants came to Sri Lanka in several waves in BCE. North India was much more developed than the South and probably had used sailing at that time. It is an established fact that North India evolved first and built urban societies when south remained a hunter gatherer society most of the time. Whether Vijaya story is true or not is a different matter and historians treat it as mere legend but accepts it talks about migrations from North India.

      The earliest Pakrit inscriptions found in Sri Lanka belongs to 5-6 BCE. And the very word mentioned in the inscription is ANURADHA which is part of the name of the first kingdom in Sri Lanka.

      Like

  5. There is a segment of pseudo historians in fact nonsense makers in Sri Lanka who think there was an ancient Sinhala king called Ravana. This belief exist in some even when Ravana is NOT a historical figure and simply a myth in a Hindu epic. Even if Ravana described in Hindu epic is a historical figure, there is no evidence to say Sri Lanka was the island described in Ravana. So those who say Ravana was a Sinhala king are just like Tamil is the first language and Sri Lanka is Tamil homeland myth makers. At least the claim of those pseudo Sinhala historians is not political when the latter makes the claim with a political agenda.

    It is a accepted by all the historians that North Indian immigrants came to Sri Lanka in several waves in BCE. North India was much more developed than the South and probably had used sailing at that time. It is an established fact that North India evolved first and built urban societies when south remained a hunter gatherer society most of the time. Whether Vijaya story is true or not is a different matter and historians treat it as mere legend but accepts it talks about migrations from North India.

    The earliest Pakrit inscriptions found in Sri Lanka belongs to 5-6 BCE. And the very word mentioned in the inscription is ANURADHA which is part of the name of the first kingdom in Sri Lanka.

    Like

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