This is going to require some explanation first. I've found that this question is frequently asked but rarely answered to a satisfying degree, with those who ask it often settling for answers like "uh, Chinese, because it's been written down since the 1200's BC" or "well, technically there's no oldest language out there because all languages come from the same source," or some such nonsense. So I'm going to pose it as a scenario.

Let's say you've been given a time machine, and nerd that you are, you've decided to use it to go back in time and find out what a particular ancient culture or civilization was like. The only issue is, you have to be able to speak the language. So which modern language is your best bet for traveling back in time like this, and how far back could you, in theory, go before the language was unintelligible?

So for example, English would be intelligible around 1300 CE but not before, because that's about the time Middle English was becoming Early Modern English. Persian would be intelligible around 800 CE, the time that Old Persian transitioned to Middle Persian. I'm thinking the frontrunners are going to be Greek, Chinese, and maybe Arabic for this, but let's see what people who actually know what they're talking about say.

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    "Oldest language" is meaningless in linguistics. I vote to close this question. – fdb Dec 13 '17 at 13:57

I vote for Sanskrit, on the grounds that contemporary Sanskrit speakers could almost certainly converse with 3,000+ (or more) year old Sanskrit speakers. Perhaps you have a special definition of "modern language" that would exclude Sanskrit.

The answer partially depends on whether you require only written-form intelligibility, or do the spoken forms also have to be intelligible? In which case, a proper test must exclude bilinguals (in particular modern Arabic speakers who also know Classical Arabic; modern greek speakers who also learned Ancient Greek). And then, do you mean that the grapheme shapes are sufficiently similar that knowledge of the modern written form allows you to understand the older written form? This could have a significant effect on Chinese, Sanskrit (also Tamil) and Hebrew, w.r.t. this question.

  • I'd personally consider Sanskrit dead, because it isn't widely spoken in the modern era. Conversely, Classical Arabic is still widely used as both a lingua franca and a liturgical language, so I'd call it living. – DeLissaplitz Anonymous Dec 13 '17 at 2:13
  • And if we're sticking to the scenario, let's assume that only spoken languages apply (since depending on the time period chosen the average person wouldn't exactly know how to write and all). – DeLissaplitz Anonymous Dec 13 '17 at 2:15
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    Sanskrit, however diluted still lives in India. It is also a study subject from classes 6 to 10 in many schools – WiccanKarnak Dec 13 '17 at 3:18

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