Today I Discovered The Oldest Words In The English Language

The English language was first spoken in early medieval England around 1400 years ago. This gradually gave rise to today’s ‘Modern English’ which became the dominant form by the 1550s. Today I discovered some of the earliest English words that are still in common usage today.

According to a 2009 study by researchers at Reading University, the oldest words in the English language include “I”, “we”, “who”, “two” and “three”, all of which date back tens of thousands of years. The discovery was made by tracking the divergence of ancestral words into different languages (including English) with an IBM supercomputer.

“You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future,” explained Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University. “From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror.”

In an unrelated study, the linguistic boffins at revealed the oldest words in their online dictionary, although these only go back to 900AD or so. They include “love”, “black” (which predates “white” by a significant margin), “mother”, “give”, “man/woman”, “fire”, “hand”, “hear”, “pull”, “spit” and “worm”.

Interestingly, “old” itself is one of the oldest words in the English language. As explains:

The ageing 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 ageing process pretty early on (before the year 900) in order to describe the elders who they relied upon for advice.

You can check out the full list of ancient words here.

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers – the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it’s just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!


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