What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Raconteur » Fri Apr 02, 2021 5:00 pm

Dragon27 wrote:
Raconteur wrote:Okay, so for the sake of looking at the other side - what would be the oldest language that we have absolute, complete (zero compromises) understanding of?

I'm guessing it would have to be a language that continues to have native speakers, alive and well, but older than other currently used languages.

Wait, an old language, that we have zero understanding of, but it still has native speakers? Why do we have zero understanding of it, then? Is it some kind of secret language, that we only the name of? I sense some unspoken assumptions in the question.
Just oldest language in active use (hence, in this case, no question regarding "complete" or "full grasp," as we must have it given living native speakers). I don't see what's so hard about understanding that.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Dragon27 » Fri Apr 02, 2021 5:08 pm

Raconteur wrote:Just oldest language in active use (hence, in this case, no question regarding "complete" or "full grasp," as we must have it given living native speakers). I don't see what's so hard about understanding that.

"Oldest language in active use" is a bit better. I just don't see how to combine it with "that we have absolute, complete (zero compromises) understanding of".
Okay, since by "active use" you, at least, mean "to have native speakers", what would be considered the age of the language? All language in current use are, well, current. We have to define at which point in the past the language we're talking about stops being itself and turns into something else. People usually go by name, I guess. We call Old English an "English" language, even though it's completely unintelligible for modern speakers, but we don't call whatever the Proto-Germanic language was an "English" language, despite it being its predecessor.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby RyanSmallwood » Fri Apr 02, 2021 5:39 pm

I kind of wonder if it makes sense to expect this kind of documentation prior to audio recordings. I'm no expert, but from what I understand a lot of standardized classical languages were never meant to document spoken language perfectly (even if they probably had some form as their initial basis). For example in the Middle English period there's accounts of lots of confusion in speech between different regions. By establishing a standard form of written English it seems like the expectation wouldn't be that some form of speech now starts being perfectly documented, but that there's a common vocabulary that can at least be used as a basis for communication between different regions.

Nowadays with television and radio it seems like its easier to keep people more in tune with the same standard. But in the past would there be an expectation that you could go anywhere outside of where you were immediately raised and be able to speak exactly like the locals, or wouldn't people always just have some standardized register they could communicate with, but always have to adjust to local pronunciations and expressions?

It seems to me that studying written languages we're getting roughly the same that native speakers of the past could expect, i.e. just a general form that people from different regions and foreigners could communicate with. Maybe their local dialects were closer to written forms at some eras than others before they started shifting away.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Dragon27 » Fri Apr 02, 2021 5:46 pm

Raconteur wrote:I don't see what's so hard about understanding that.

I see where the problem is. I misread "absolute, complete (zero compromises) understanding of" as "absolute, completely zero (no compromises) understanding of".
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby jimmy » Fri Apr 02, 2021 6:17 pm

to me , MSA.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby tungemål » Sat Apr 03, 2021 9:43 am

jimmy wrote:to me , MSA.

You think Arabic is the oldest living language? Could be, but in fact it is not that old: Classical Arabic was used from the 7th century, and as far as I understand MSA, which people learn today as a written language, is more or less the same. But would modern speakers be able to understand someone from the 7th century?

In fact, many modern languages are not old at all:
- Modern English started to develop around 1600. Middle English from around 1100 would be very tough for English speakers today to understand.
- Norwegian changed considerably after 1400, and we wouldn't be able to understand the language used before that.
- German: Middle High German was used between 1050-1350. I am not sure if native speakers today would be able to understand it. See for yourself if you can understand the text samples on that page.
- Spanish: Old Spanish was in use from the 10th century, and in this case I'm more confident that modern speakers would be able to understand it. What do you think? Check the samples.

Some other suggestions in this thread:
- Icelandic: The modern language is almost exactly the same as the Old Norse that was in use from the 7th century.
- Persian: Lycopersicon said that the modern language is
Lycopersicon wrote:Modern Persian as it is written and spoken today is nearly identical to the language that emerged as early as the late 8th century in central Asia.

- Lithuanian: It is often regarded as the most archaic language in Europe. But how old? Many words in Lithuanian are similar to Sanskrit, which means they are similar to Proto-Indo-European. I guess modern Lithuanians wouldn't be able to understand PIE, but maybe they'd be able to understand Lithuanian from before the 7th century?
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby jimmy » Sat Apr 03, 2021 12:56 pm

tungemål wrote:
jimmy wrote:to me , MSA.

You think Arabic is the oldest living language? Could be, but in fact it is not that old: Classical Arabic was used from the 7th century, and as far as I understand MSA, which people learn today as a written language, is more or less the same. But would modern speakers be able to understand someone from the 7th century?

In fact, many modern languages are not old at all:
- Modern English started to develop around 1600. Middle English from around 1100 would be very tough for English speakers today to understand.
- Norwegian changed considerably after 1400, and we wouldn't be able to understand the language used before that.
- German: Middle High German was used between 1050-1350. I am not sure if native speakers today would be able to understand it. See for yourself if you can understand the text samples on that page.
- Spanish: Old Spanish was in use from the 10th century, and in this case I'm more confident that modern speakers would be able to understand it. What do you think? Check the samples.

Some other suggestions in this thread:
- Icelandic: The modern language is almost exactly the same as the Old Norse that was in use from the 7th century.
- Persian: Lycopersicon said that the modern language is
Lycopersicon wrote:Modern Persian as it is written and spoken today is nearly identical to the language that emerged as early as the late 8th century in central Asia.

- Lithuanian: It is often regarded as the most archaic language in Europe. But how old? Many words in Lithuanian are similar to Sanskrit, which means they are similar to Proto-Indo-European. I guess modern Lithuanians wouldn't be able to understand PIE, but maybe they'd be able to understand Lithuanian from before the 7th century?


thank you for stating your ideas with us.
I remember a text do not remember where it comes from or the source but it was saying
that both chinese and arabic alphabets (i.e. texts,there is no aphabet in chinese,i know that) were produced by images or of natural drawings.
so,I thought so.
meanwhile, might be you incorrect in some particular quantitical instructions you provided? Noble Quran came approximately more than 1400 years ago.
and is still understandable.
if you say that not all part was understandable ,yes that is a case. but the generality of this book is understandable.
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby tungemål » Sat Apr 03, 2021 1:30 pm

In fact I don't know anything about Arabic. I just looked up and found out that classical Arabic dates from the 7th century, and like you say that's 1400 years ago.

And what about for instance Hebrew? Could modern Israelians go back to the 5th century BC and understand the people who wrote the Torah?
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby jimmy » Sat Apr 03, 2021 1:38 pm

tungemål wrote:In fact I don't know anything about Arabic. I just looked up and found out that classical Arabic dates from the 7th century, and like you say that's 1400 years ago.


probably it should be earler than 1400,because ...when we be sure for something that tose things exist, then we can also be sure something exceptionally or extensionally about that things.

And what about for instance Hebrew? Could modern Israelians go back to the 5th century BC and understand the people who wrote the Torah?


I think yes, interestingly I know many great researchers / scientists had learnt hebrew ....

but I mean ,the thing you mention ,to me, is not impossible. todays turkishes are still researching ancient turkish language.
also, very interestingly in a documentary program,I saw someone going to mid-china and could particularly understand each them.

is not that interesting?
turkey is in erope

but china is in east asia.
so,how..?
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Re: What is the oldest language known that we have full grasp of?

Postby Iversen » Sat Apr 03, 2021 1:58 pm

The problem with the original question is that "full grasp" is a very hard thing to achieve - if not downright impossible. So we have to lower the treshold to get any meaningful answers.

Let me summarize a bit: we have tons of writings from languages that are more than two thousand years old, but they may not represent the spoken language - and they definitely don't contain every single word or expression that was in common use when those texts were written. And even though we may now something about the pronunciation it is unlikely that we know enough to say how any single person from an old culture would have sounded. Finally there is the problem with dialectal differences, sociolects and cultural things like degrees of politeness.

Even today there are languages with enormous stylistic and even grammatical differences between speech and writing - for instance French. We do have some texts by Plautus and the famed Satyricon by Petronius plus the graffitti of Pompei and Ercolano to give us a glimpse of how Romans from Rome actually spoke 2000 years ago, but if we read similar works in a presumed 'popular' style by modern authors we can not necessarily recognize the way we speak among ourselves - partly because we don't belong to the social and geographical groups whose speech those authors have tried to mimick. And in older times where writing skills were limited to a few well educated specialists the gorge between the stylish written style and common smalltalk, which rarely was written down, must have been much deeper.

The Quran has been mentioned, but how much do we know about the spoken language in Mecca or Medina in the 6. century? Did the merchants and their wifes communicate in MSA about their daily life? I know that at least one irritated wife in Ancient Egypt wrote to her absent husband and asked what the h**l he was up to since he hadn't returned home already. Lots of similar texts would be necessary to claim that we know other registers than the stuffy or poetic 'high speech' - even partially. But knowing everything? Did the last native speaker of Dalmatian know everything about his language? Probably not...

As for the pronunciations in the old cultures we often know more than you might expect, partly through the efforts of learned scholars that have been cast in iron in sound laws that indicate how something once probably was pronounced, but also through clever interpretations of small things like writing errors and random comments by contemporary writers. And I'm fairly sure that the old ones would have understood you if you used the reconstructed pronunciation. You don't need living native native speakers to get there. For example I had heard very little spoken Italian when I came to Milano in 1972 on my first interrail trip. I had learnt Italian from a textbook with the usual dubious explanations concerning the pronunciation, and nevertheless the Italians seemed to understand everything I said. And by the way - what about the dialectal differences, like where to apply closed versus open o's and e'? Appparently they they weren't that important (at my level, at least).

We probably know enough about the old pronunciations to be in principle potentially understandable in several old languages (not just Latin and Greek, but also a number of Asiatic languages), like me when I arrived in Milano in 1972 with my homebrewed Italian. But asking for a full grasp of anything just serves to make the requirements insurmountable.
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