The Oldest Words In The English Language

In the beginning

While it's true our first ancestors may have used some type of sign language, eventually verbal communication evolved. And, 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. So, let's look at some of the oldest words we could find—a linguistic square one. These words go back more than a thousand years! “Back in the day,” indeed.

I

The word I is the ultimate personal pronoun, referring to oneself. We date this word all the way back to before the year 900, and it makes sense because we're sure humans needed ways to refer to themselves (as opposed to their mother, brother, husband, child). Self-identity was and always will be important.

Plus, if you want to get all metaphysical about it, I also refers to your ego. Who wouldn't want to take credit for hunting that huge deer that fed the entire community?

We

We is the nominative plural of I, indicating possession, so of course it was created at the same time as our previous word. We is used to denote oneself and another, or multiple others. Because if you have a way to reference yourself (I), then why not find a way to describe the whole gang, as well.

Black

Interestingly enough, black is another one of the earliest words in our language. Defined as “lacking hue and brightness; absorbing light without reflecting any of the rays composing it,” a simpler explanation might explain why this word was created so long ago: “simply the absence of color.”

In any case, man (before the year 900) picked up on the fact that the sun sets every night, and the sky becomes a dark, murky void. Spoiler: White didn’t make the cut for this list.

Mother

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

Give

Give is one that our mothers do well. And, it's presence on this list of oldest words (it's another that originated before the year 900) means that man learned long ago how to work together, to share. Before we knew how to classify it, cooperation was a building block of human society, and it still is. It's clear that when people don't work together, tensions arise and little gets accomplished. A lesson to remember from our ancestors, for sure.

Man/Woman

Speaking of man, the words man and woman were also developed before the year 900. Identifiers were obviously the key foundational words of the English language.

Fire

And, what does man (and woman!) build? FireThis word's creation was probably inherent to survival. No electricity? No problem. Rub two sticks together, and you’ve got light, warmth, and a sense of security. This is another building-block word, describing an essential concept, and it probably helped our ancestors live longer . . . thus, creating more vocabulary.

Ashes

So, if fire was one of our first words, makes sense that ashes was too. It originated before the year 950. (So, it took a couple of years to decide what to call the "powdery residue that remains after burning matter.") After all, when you're done with your fire, you need to clean up what's left. Have we found the inception of chores?

Hand

How did people make fire (and clean it up). With their hands! People long ago identified what was at the end of each arm, before the year 900 to be exact. And, when you inevitably burn your hand by holding your dinner over that fire, you need a term to explain what part of your body hurts, too.

Hear

Here comes more body language—that is body parts that inspired the English language. When you were out hunting (not much else to do in early civilization), a certain amount of stealth was required. You needed to be quiet in order to catch your prey. And, you needed to listen for it, to hear where the animal was walking or eating so you could find it's location.

Or, more realistically, you probably needed to ask your hunting partner: "did you hear that?," in case a bear was coming your way and you had to run! This word was classified before the year 950 in order to enhance human interaction. Although, it should be noted that speak isn’t among this age-old list.

Spit

OK, this is a surprise. Spit is, obviously, “to eject saliva from the mouth; expectorate” as we define it. Created before the year 950, humans must have needed a way to explain how to get that icky taste out of their mouths.

One, Two, Three

The concept of mathematics stretches back through the centuries. Let's imagine: The hunters go out to kill an animal for the family dinner (yup, this scenario again), and come back with more than one catch (it was a good day). Ways to communicate amounts had to be devised. Clear the ice box.

The creation of numbers suggest that a sense of sequential order was necessary in early civilization. Makes sense for planning, hunting, and gathering purposes.

Flow

We can only surmise why flow was created so early (before the year 900) . . . perhaps due to collecting and pouring water? Flow means “to move along in a stream, to circulate, to stream or well forth.” Or, maybe the flow of numbers (explained in the last slide) inspired this verb?

Old

What would an old-word list be without the word old. The aging process is a fact of life. And, an old person is a vital member of a community for their wisdom and experience. People picked up on the aging process pretty early on (before the year 900) in order (we're guessing) to describe the elders who they relied upon for advice.

This

Before the year 900, language skills were still in the Alpha or Beta stages of development, but people had to find themselves wanting to identify an object that may (or may not) have had a proper name (yet.) So, they pointed or gestured to something they wanted—and this was born!

A word “used to indicate one of two or more persons, things, etc.,” . . . seems like a pretty vital addition to the English vocabulary, nice work humans!

Pull

This word is included due to its relation to building or construction. We're sure humans had to pull a lot of wood, animals, stones, and so on in order to build communities and shelters. And, it's probably fair to assume that they needed a way to ask for help: "Pull this." Aha . . . we're seeing how this language development happened. Pretty cool.

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.