The Oldest Words In The English Language

In The Beginning...

Everything had to start somewhere, including our language. While it's true our first ancestors may have used some type of sign language, eventually verbal communication evolved (as most things have a habit of doing). Let's go back to some of the oldest words we can find—a linguistic Square One. These words go back more than a thousand years! “Back in the day,” indeed.

...There Was Language

One way that people have studied very old words is by trying to find cognates, which are words that have the same meaning—and often a similar sound—across different languages. For example, you can compare the word "father" to padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).

The oldest words we know of are building block words, reflecting key elements in developing societies across humanity. Let’s take a look at 10 selected words, all oldies but goodies.

I

It’s a word that’s also a letter. The word “I” is the ultimate personal pronoun, referring to oneself. It’s in the ninth position of the contemporary alphabet, and is the third vowel. Dictionary.com dates this word all the way back to before the year 900, and adds if you want to get all metaphysical about it, “I” also refers to your ego.

We

“We” is the nominative plural of “I,” indicating possession. It’s used to denote oneself and another, or others. Our definition also includes a British reference, injected with just the right amount of British dry sarcasm, as in “And how are we today?” This word also dates back to before the year 900.

Mother

The interesting thing about this word is it supports the concept of “family” going back thousands of years. For all this time, there's been a way to describe the person who brought you into the world.

Fire

This word was inherent to survival. No electricity? No problem. Rub two sticks together, and you’ve got light, warmth, and a sense of security. As we said earlier, this is a basic building block word, which describes an essential concept.

Man/Male

When you’re going to identify yourself, this is one of the first options about half of us think to use. It makes sense that we've wanted to have it around for so long.

Two

The concept of mathematics stretches back through the centuries. Let's imagine: the hunters go out to kill an animal for the family dinner, and come back with more than one catch (it was a good day). Ways to communicate numbers had to be devised. “How many” and “how much” are staples of communication, and it began long long ago.

Three

It comes after two and before four, always has and always will (we think). Numbers in this list suggest that a sense of sequential order was essential. You needed to know how many of a thing you had. That leads us to our next slide, which is...

Five

...five. Now, how is it that two, three, and five are on this list, but one and four aren’t? Well, they just aren’t, and we’ll get back to you on that. Nonetheless, math and numerical order continue to play a key role in this series of old, old words.

Worm

Let's end with one to smile at—language proves we've had a way to talk about these rather innocuous, low-profile creatures for a long, long time. But not nearly as long as they've been around.