Among the ancient European languages, Latin and ancient Greek stand out as the languages of the classics of Western civilization.
Old European languages also include some Germanic languages such as Gothic and Old Norse, and some Celtic languages such as Gaulish and Old Irish.
Etruscan is a language that flourished in Italy prior to the rise of the Roman Empire. Etruscan had some influence on Latin, yet over time, Latin completely replaced it.
Basque is an ancient language that predates the arrival of Indo-European languages. Basque is a language isolate, meaning it has no known connections to other language families.
Latin was the language of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin gave rise to the Romance languages which include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
During the Middle Ages, Latin became the language of the educated elite and the Catholic Church. During the Renaissance, there was a resurgence of interest in classical antiquity and classical Latin texts became part of the foundation of humanist education.
You may have previously encountered some Latin phrases, for instance:
Even in modern academia, the classics of ancient Latin literature are still studied. Some famous authors who wrote in Latin are Virgil, Cicero, Ovid, Horace, and Seneca.
Many English vocabulary words come from Latin. This is due to the Norman conquest of England in 1066 when the Normans — who spoke Old French (derived from Latin) — conquered England.
To learn some Latin vocabulary, see this list of the thousand most common Latin words.
Ancient Greek was in use for over a millennium, from 1500 BC to 300 BC. As a result of this extensive period of use, the language underwent some transformations, leading to the emergence of several different dialects.
Ancient Greek encompasses multiple dialects, such as Attic, Ionic, and Doric. Among these, Attic Greek was spoken in Athens during the classical period (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE). It is the dialect most commonly taught to students of ancient Greek today.
During the Classical period, ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid some of the foundations of Western philosophical thought.
Prior to the Classical period, the Ionic dialect was used from 1000 to 300 BCE and it is closely related to what is called Homeric Greek, the form of the language found in the works of the ancient poet Homer, author of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”.
The end of the classical period coincides with Ancient Greek evolving into what is known as Koine Greek. This form of Greek became a lingua franca in large parts of the Mediterranean region and it is the language in which the New Testament was initially written.
To learn more about Ancient Greek, see this comparison of Ancient and Modern Greek.
Prominent authors of Ancient Greek literature include Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, and Euripides.
Old Norse was the language spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking Age — from the end of the 8th century to the middle of the 11th century.
The Old Norse was initially written with a runic alphabet. Later, as Christianity spread in the region, the Latin alphabet gradually replaced the runic script. Old Norse is also famous for its extensive literary tradition, which includes epic sagas, eddic poetry, and mythological texts.
Old Norse is now an extinct language, but it has many descendants. Of these descendants, Icelandic has remained relatively close to Old Norse, whereas Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish have changed a lot over the centuries. These changes are discussed in this comparison of Old Norse and Norwegian.
The Gaulish language was an ancient Celtic language spoken in Gaul (modern-day France and parts of surrounding regions) during a period ranging from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE.
Although most French vocabulary words come from Latin, there are also many French words that come from the Gaulish language. Examples of such words include “boue” (mud), “caillou” (pebble), and “chêne” (oak).
A significant icon of French popular culture, the comic book series Astérix tells the fictional tales of Gaulish warriors who courageously confront the Roman Republic. These comic book heroes are helped by a magic potion brewed by their druid.
The term “gothic” brings to mind images of Gothic architecture, like the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France with its intricate gargoyles, or the Victorian Gothic architecture of Princeton University. But Gothic is also a language.
Gothic is an ancient Germanic language that was spoken by the Goths, a group of Germanic tribes who fought against Romans and participated in the fall of the Roman Empire.
Gothic is part of the extinct East Germanic language group, along with Vandalic, spoken by the Vandals, another ancient Germanic tribe. The term “vandalism” in English is derived from the name of this tribe, recalling the senseless destruction caused by their infamous sack of Rome.
Gothic is the oldest Germanic language for which we have surviving texts. A noteworthy document written in Gothic is the Codex Argenteus which contains parts of the 4th-century translation of the Christian Bible into the Gothic language.
Etruscan was the language of the Etruscan civilization, located in a region that is part of present-day Italy.
The Etruscan language became extinct sometime between the first century BCE and the first century CE.
Among the ancient languages of India, Sanskrit occupies a special role — similar to how Latin stands out among ancient European languages.
Sanskrit is the language of many sacred scriptures, philosophical writings, and literary masterpieces. Sanskrit has also contributed many vocabulary words to the modern languages of India.
Pali, an ancient language of India closely related to Sanskrit, is found in Buddhist texts from the Theravada school.
Tamil is an old language that is widely spoken in the south of India. In contrast to Sanskrit and Pali which are Indo-European languages, Tamil is a Dravidian language.
Most English speakers have encountered some Sanskrit vocabulary words. For instance, terms such as “karma”, “yoga”, “sutra”, and “mantra” are Sanskrit terms that have entered the English language.
Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, belongs to the Indo-European language family. Therefore, Sanskrit is distantly related to Latin, Greek, and even English.
The early form of Sanskrit, known as “Vedic Sanskrit” was in use from 1500 to 600 BCE. It is named after the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism. Over time, Vedic Sanskrit evolved into what is known as “Classical Sanskrit.”
Pali is an ancient language from the same linguistic family as Sanskrit. This is why Pali and Sanskrit are similar languages.
Pali is closely associated with Theravada Buddhism where the scriptures — known as the Pali Canon — are written in Pali.
Pali is not as old as Sanskrit as it developed around the 3rd century BCE.
Not all ancient languages are extinct. Tamil, for instance, is spoken by millions of people, predominantly in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka.
Tamil inscriptions dating back to the 3rd century BC have been found, making Tamil among the oldest living languages in the world, with a literary history spanning well over 2,000 years.
Tamil was the first language to be classified as a classical language of India by the Indian government. Sanskrit was awarded this distinction the following year.
While Sanskrit is part of the large Indo-European language family, which also includes English, Tamil belongs to a different language family. Tamil is a Dravidian language.
Sumerian is one of the most ancient known languages in human history, with evidence of its existence reaching back to 2900 BCE. Its name comes from “Sumer,” an ancient civilization in the south of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) where the language was spoken.
The Sumerian language was written in cuneiform, a system that used wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets.
Sumerian is a language isolate, meaning it has not been classified into any language family.
Hittite was the language of the Hittite Empire which was located in an area that is now mostly part of modern-day Turkey. Hittite was written in a cuneiform script.
Hittite is the Indo-European language with the most ancient written text (known as the Anitta text), dating back to the 17th century BCE.
Ancient Egyptian is a language written in hieroglyphs that was used in Ancient Egypt during the time of the pharaohs.
Egyptian hieroglyphs remained a mystery to the archaeologists who explored the pyramids — until the 19th century when Jean-François Champollion, a French linguist decoded them by studying the Rosetta Stone, a large black stone inscribed with the same text written in three different languages: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek.
The Rosetta Stone was discovered by the French in 1799, during Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt. But, in 1801, after the capitulation of Alexandria, which ended the French expedition in Egypt, the stone was surrendered to the British.
The Rosetta Stone was shortly thereafter moved to the British Museum in London where it has then been on display ever since.
Aramaic was the language that Jesus spoke. There are several sections in the Hebrew Bible that are written in Aramaic. It is a language that also appears in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient religious manuscripts discovered in caves in the Judaean Desert during the middle of the 20th century.
Aramaic gets its name from the Arameans, an ancient civilization that once inhabited the historical region of Aram, which is referenced in the Bible and situated in modern-day Syria.
For more about the Aramaic language, refer to this comparison of Aramaic and Hebrew.
Hebrew inscriptions dating back to the 10th century BCE have been discovered making it truly an ancient language. Hebrew is the predominant language of the Hebrew Bible, and a portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls is also composed in Hebrew.
For several hundred years, Hebrew ceased to be a regularly spoken language. It survived as a liturgical language. Later, the Hebrew language was revived and it is now the official language of the state of Israel.
Babylonian is simply a dialect of the Akkadian language that was spoken in the city of Babylon and the broader Babylonian Empire.
The remains of the city of Babylon are located in present-day Iraq. Visitors should not expect to see any visible traces of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were listed among the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The Old Persian language was in use at the time of Darius the Great, the Persian king who ruled from 522 to 486 BCE.
One of the most famous examples of writings in Old Persian is the Behistun Inscription. This monumental rock-carved inscription was commissioned by Darius the Great and features Old Persian text alongside text written in the Elamite and Babylonian languages.
Carved into the steep cliff at the Behistun site, this trilingual inscription provided archaeologists with historical as well as linguistic knowledge.
Old Persian was written with a cuneiform script. Modern Persian is generally written in a modified form of the Arabic script. Despite using similar scripts, Persian and Arabic belong to different language families: Persian is an Indo-European language whereas Arabic is a Semitic language.
The earliest inscriptions in Arabic date back to the 4th century CE, but the language itself existed in oral form long before that. Arabic is a member of the Semitic language family, which includes other ancient languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Akkadian.
The Quran is written in Classical Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is based on Classical Arabic, serves as the formal and standardized variant, facilitating communication and comprehension across the diverse Arabic-speaking regions and communities.
Coptic directly descends from the ancient Egyptian language. Unlike its ancestor, Coptic uses a modified version of the Greek alphabet instead of hieroglyphics. Coptic developed during the early centuries of the current era. The historical context was that Egypt came under the influence of Roman rule after having been under Greek rule.
Coptic gradually declined as a spoken language when Arabic became the language of administration and daily life in Egypt. However, Coptic persisted as a liturgical language in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Avestan is an ancient language from the same family as Old Persian and Sanskrit. Avestan is the language in which the Avesta were written. The Avesta are the scriptures of Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions, which originated in ancient Persia.
The Syriac language is a form of Aramaic that emerged during the first century CE in the Kingdom of Osroene centered around the city of Edessa. That city still exists; it is now named Urfa and is located in present-day Turkey.
Syriac continues to be used among Syriac Christian communities and it serves as a liturgical language.
The name of the Hattic language resembles that of the Hittite language and both originate from the same region (Anatolia) which is part of modern-day Turkey. But these two languages do not belong to the same language family. Hittite is an Indo-European language whereas Hattic is not. Hattic is a language isolate meaning that it is not classified within a larger language family.
Phoenician is an ancient Semitic language that is now extinct. It is related to Hebrew and Aramaic.
The Phoenician language is connected to a region known as Phoenicia which was situated along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and contained parts of modern-day Lebanon.
The Phoenician trade routes encompassed much of the Mediterranean, which led to the spread of their language. The Phoenician alphabet is considered to be the ancestor of many different writing systems, including the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets.
Elamite was an ancient language spoken in the region of Elam, located in present-day southwestern Iran.
The oldest form of the language, which is called “Old Elamite” spanned a period from approximately 2600 BCE to 1500 BCE.
Elamite is a language isolate, meaning that Linguists have not classified it into a larger language family.
Akkadian was an ancient Semitic language that emerged in Mesopotamia during the third millennium BCE. It was the primary language of the Akkadian Empire, which encompassed large parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
Akkadian was written in cuneiform script, a system of writing that involved wedge-shaped impressions made on clay tablets.
A famous piece of Akkadian literature, the “Epic of Gilgamesh” is one of the earliest and most celebrated epic poems in human history.
Eblaite is one of the more recently discovered ancient languages. During the 1960s and 1970s, Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae and his team led the excavation of the ancient city of Ebla, located in a region that is now modern-day Syria. Among the treasures unearthed were thousands of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, which revealed the existence of a previously unknown Semitic language.
This language was deciphered by an Italian scholar, Giovanni Pettinato, who named it Eblaite in reference to the city of Ebla where it was discovered
During its prime, the city of Ebla flourished as a prominent trading hub and it gradually became the capital of an empire. Later, the city of Elba came into conflict with the Akkadian Empire and was destroyed in the 23rd century by Naram-Sin, the Akkadian ruler at the time.
The Punic language was once spoken in the powerful maritime city-state of Carthage in North Africa (located in present-day Tunisia). Punic is a descendant of Phoenician.
From its origin as a city-state, Carthage developed into an empire that encompassed much of the southern shore of the Mediterranean and parts of Spain. Cartage came into conflict with the Romans during the Punic Wars.
During the Second Punic War the legendary Carthaginian general, Hannibal crossed the Alps with his war elephants and inflicted substantial losses on the Romans. But the war ended with a Roman victory.
The Third Punic War marked the final chapter in the Carthaginian-Roman conflict. Amid Roman fears of Carthaginian resurgence, the city of Carthage was besieged, captured, and ultimately destroyed. The conquest of Carthage by Rome led to the decline of the Punic language.
The earliest known inscriptions in Chinese are from the 13th century BCE. These are oracle bone inscriptions, which were made on animal bones and turtle shells and served for divination purposes.