What are the Oldest English Words in History?

what are the oldest English words in history

The English language is a vast, creative and astounding collection of words, terms and baffling rules that we use to govern our speech and writing. It is the number one, most widely spoken language in the world, if you include non-native English speakers; though Mandarin and Spanish do beat it on a native language basis.

A regular person speaks, on average, up to 10,000 words a day- that’s a lot of words! While many are “filler words” and likely another unspecified amount of new slang words used by the general public today such as “selfie” and “fleek”, that still leaves quite a hefty amount of particular words being utilized by a person on a daily basis.

The Science of Language

We use English every day almost without thinking. Have you ever pondered the origin of a word or wondered where it came from? Well, you’re not alone. There is a whole scientific field based on tracing the roots and origin of words. Evolutionary language scientists have been putting in an enormous amount of time and effort to trace the evolution of language.

Just in the last few years there have been some significant discoveries by this language science community. The University of Reading’s evolutionary language scientists have finally been able to trace all the way back to the beginning of the English language to figure out what words came first. They found this out with the help of a supercomputer that allowed them to trace back to almost 30,000 years ago.

How Old are the Oldest English Words?

Words change, and vocabularies shift throughout the years, so it is interesting to know what words have stood the test of time and remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the English language.

Multiple sources agree that some of the oldest words in the English language that haven’t changed (or hardly changed at all) are two, three, I and we. These words date back to approximately 20,000 years ago during the Stone Ages before writing was even invented.

The reason scientists can trace these words back so far and even before writing was invented is through multiple methods. One method uses the words that linguists describe how words have been used historically and how they interconnect with other languages.

They also turn the English language into some math equation using their study of how words change and die over time and what particular types of words tend to change. This is mainly how the supercomputer has been an enormous asset to the discovery of the oldest English words.

The Origin of the Oldest English Words

  • The word “I” comes from the Old English ic, which in turn originated from the furtherance of Proto-Germanic ik and ek. Variants of icwere used in a variety of English dialects until the 1600s.
  • The word “we” also comes from Old English and can also be linked to the Proto-Germanic word wiz. This word became more popular in the 19th century to be used in editorials and journalism to show consensus.
  • The word “Two” comes from the Old English to Middle English word twa.
  • The word “Three” originates from a mix of Old English, Pre-Germanic, Old French, Mittel Dutch, Old High German, Old Norse and Danish.

Being pronouns and numeric words, these words are understandably the oldest researchers have found. Both word forms have proved staying power over the years. The reason these familiar words have held on so long is just that, the more common they are, it is less likely that they will change.

Other oldest words include who, five, four, how, one, name, tongue, new, thou, what, where, star, to give and hand.

What’s the Earliest English Word?

We’re looking for the earliest surviving written English word–is it in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, on artifacts from the migration period, or in Latin?