The Oldest Words In The English Language

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 the oldest words we can find—a linguistic Square One. These words go back 15,000 years! “Back in the day,” indeed.

University of Reading (England) researchers looked at some 200 words known as the core of all vocabularies. They then drilled down to “cognates,” which are words that have the same meaning and a similar sound across different languages. Need an example? Next slide, please:


The website ZME Science uses “father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit)” as examples of cognates. After discovering the root words, they came up with a list of 23 “ultraconserved” words. These words are linguistic building blocks for sentences. The more complicated words will eventually surface—take “floccinaucinihilipilification,” for example.

The takeaway from this small sample is that even way back when, the concepts of “family” and “survival” were already key elements in the developing societal models of multiple cultures. Let’s take a look at 10 selected words from the list, all oldies but goodies.

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. 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” 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.
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.
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.
When you’re going to identify yourself, this is one of the first options about half of us think to use. Interestingly, the word “woman” wasn’t on the 23-word list, while “mother” (seen earlier in our list) was.
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.
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. 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.
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.