Fun with Words - Back to the Basics with the Oldest English Words

Back to the Basics: Oldest English Words

Learning something new is always fun. Knowing about new words in English is interesting. But what about the old words, about how the building blocks of language developed? As an online English speaking course in India, we feel language learning can be as interesting as we want it to be.

Studies reveal that a few words analysed by the researchers at University of Cambridge gave rise to an extensive language family, Indo-European, which includes everything from Sanskrit to Latin to Russian to Irish and to English. They also found the meaning of these old words hadn’t changed over years.

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 dominant by the 1550s. Online spoken English classes usually do not encourage learning history. But it’s fascinating to learn how a the most spoken language globally cam into origin.

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

Let’s look at the oldest words in the English language.

Our online English tutors have listed out the oldest English words being used since a long time now.

  • I- The first and foremost word, ‘I’, first person singular person, an important letter to introduce yourself develops from the Old English ‘ic’ and ‘ih’. All human beings need a way to introduce themselves, isn’t it? And the most basic word is “I” to talk about yourself.
  • We- We, first-person plural personal pronoun, is one of our oldest English words. “We” is used to denote oneself and many others. You need to have a way to introduce yourself (I), and of course, then you need a word to describe your whole group as well, isn’t it? “We” developed from the Old English ‘wē’ and is connected to the Dutch ‘wij’ and German ‘wir’.
  • Who- Who, is another oldest English word. It is used when you ask about the name or identity of a person or group of people. There would definitely be a need for a person asking a stranger their name or their identity and that’s how this word had been in the usage since long.
  • One, two, three- The counting words are among the earliest recorded words in English. In Old English, “one” was ān (yes, the articles an and a are related), “two” was twā (think twin), and “three” was thrēo or thrīo.
  • Black- Defined as “the absence of color” or “lacking hue and brightness”, this word also says for itself as to why it’s such an early word. The Old English form of this word was blæc.
  • Mother- The last cry of the soldiers dying on the battlefield is "Mother”. In fact, a baby needs a way to describe the person who brought them into the world. Indeed, it makes sense that a word like mother would be one of the oldest English words. Mother was mōdor in Old English, mater in Latin, and mḗtēr in Greek.
  • Give- A word used for sharing and cooperation. Human survival has always been predicated on our ability to cooperate. The presence on this list of the oldest English words means that the humans learnt how to work together, to share, and preserved the word for it, long back.
  • Man/ Woman- The words “man” and “woman” were foundational words of the English language, obviously for the purpose of identification. Originally, man could refer to a person, regardless of their gender, with the words ‘wer’ specifically referring to “a male” and ‘wīf’, “a female.” Over time, man became the go-to word for, well, a man. And woman originates from the Old English wīfman, equivalent to wīf (female).
  • Fire- We all are aware of the fact that fire for a long time, was the greatest tool of survival. The men and women built fire. There was no electricity by rubbing two sticks together to get light, warmth, and a sense of security. The word developed from the Old English fȳr.
  • Ashes- If fire was one of our first words, it makes sense that ashes was one of the oldest words too. After all, that’s the powdery residue that is left after the burning of fire. People used the words asce or æsce in Old English. This is related to some words in very ancient languages: the Sanskrit ā́sa and the Hittite hassi (“on the hearth”).
  • Hand- The most important part of human beings, was identified by people long ago. Hand was also sometimes spelled hond in Old English.
  • Hear- Hear means to perceive with the ear the sound made by someone- And there were so many things that the people needed to hear: the approaching footsteps of a predator; the sound of prey fleeing; the sound of a baby's cries and so much more. The word ‘hear’ developed from the Old English hēran and hīeran.
  • Spit- It means “to eject saliva from the mouth; expectorate”. Humans have always needed a way to explain how to get that icky taste out of their mouths. And that’s how it has been one of the few English oldest words.
  • Flow- Flow meaning continuous and if we relate it to water, that’s an element we require continuously in our lives. It was needed for survival. It has Germanic origins, and is also related to flood.
  • Old- Aging is a fact of life. And, old and older people are vital members of a community for their wisdom and experience. Wisdom is essential when it comes to survival. Young people have always needed a word to describe the elders whom they relied upon for advice. This word developed from the old English eald and ald (compare elder and alderman).
  • This- Used to point out anything. Isn’t the word important if we want to refer to countless things? This developed from the Old English thes, among other forms.
  • Pull- This word is included due to its relation to building or construction. Maybe the humans at that point of time wanted the help of other people to “pull” things. Surely, they always had to pull a lot of wood, animals, stones, and so on in order to build communities and shelters. Pull comes from the Old English word pullian (which especially meant “to pluck feathers out of”).

The words have evolved and so is the English language. Let’s keep learning new words every day to be updated and sound.

Related Articles: New English Words | Learning Spellings Smartly | English Language Facts


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