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 What is the oldest word in the English language

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Dirk Marinus
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PostSubject: What is the oldest word in the English language   Mon 11 Apr 2016, 17:37

Googling around in trying to find the oldest word in the English language results in different suggestions.

I am certain that no one does know the answer but which word do you think is the oldest word in the English language still used every day?
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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Mon 11 Apr 2016, 18:04

Blimey that's a tricky one. Surely it doesn't have to have the same spelling, or even pronunciation, just the same meaning, no? And what about words borrowed from another language?

I would imagine one could make a case for some of those very basic words that are essentially common to many languages that developed, well before English, from some proto-indo-european language group, and so were words that already existed in Britain before the Angles arrived, but was basically the same as their word for it once they did arrive, and so was immediately adopted by all and little changed since. I have no idea what it might be, but something fundamental like god, king, father, mother, house, bread, water, cow, gold ... but I'm just thinking outloud really.
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Mon 11 Apr 2016, 19:55

Goodness, MM, I thought you would be jumping up and down shouting, "brock". It may not be the oldest but it is certainly early and variants appear in Brythonic, Irish and Old Welsh, brox, broch and brocc, perhaps deriving from brokkos.

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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Mon 11 Apr 2016, 20:55

When do you think "English" began, Dirk? Do you mean Saxon, or maybe pre-Saxon words still in use? Or words identified as original "Authentic English" with no discernible linguistic roots?

For me it's "mmm", which even a Cro-Magnon (and the odd Neanderthal) would apparently have used for "I'm thinking about it".

So, mmm.
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Mon 11 Apr 2016, 23:12

The oldest phrase is probably "Yes, dear".
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Tue 26 Apr 2016, 17:51

*h,e'ghi- has been identified as the Proto-Indo-European word for 'hedgehog' (don't ask me how to pronounce it!) according to an article in the latest newsletter of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.  I'm not saying it's the oldest word, but... Well, just thought it was interesting.

As to the oldest word, possibly something like "Mama"?  If you hum and then open and close your mouth twice, that's the word that comes out.  It's been posited as the reason why the majority of babies say "Mama" as their first word.


Last edited by Anglo-Norman on Tue 26 Apr 2016, 19:45; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Tue 26 Apr 2016, 18:54

Or is "mama" derived from the sound a baby makes while contentedly suckling at its mother's breast?

The simple word for mum is remarkably similar across many languages, for example (courtesy of Google Translate): mummy, mama, maman, mamà, mam, ema, μαμά, mom, momi, мама, mamma, mamãe, mare, mama, anya, anne, анам etc....
(that's English, German, French, Spanish, Irish, Estonian, Greek, Latin, Finnish, Russian, Italian, Portugese, Catalan, Polish, Hungarian, Turkish, and Kazakh).

In Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Hindi and Japonese it's,

أمي  
 媽媽   אמא   माँ   ママ

.... but I don't know how those are pronounced. However I note that Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew seem to have a double-repeated sound, so might they also be pronounced something like ma-ma or am-am? Or maybe that's just how the "English" word mama/mum/mom is rendered into those languages/alphabets, and their actual word for "mother" is something completely different. Does anyone know?

PS :
Google Translate informs me that the traditional Chinese 媽媽  or in its modern simplified form 妈妈  is pronounced as māmā,  the Hindi  माँ  as maan, and the Arabic  أمي   as 'ami. But I'm still not sure if these are old words, or just the modern rendering into those languages/alphabets of the English/American word mama, mummy, mum or mom.
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Wed 27 Apr 2016, 08:18

The oldest recorded word in English - at least that we know of - is "fish".

The marvellously named "Franks Casket", on view in the British Museum, is conventionally regarded as the oldest surviving instance of written Old English. The words are carved as runes on its panels, as are some beautiful and intricate reliefs depicting scenes from Roman, Germanic and Christian legend, the combination alone evidence of the casket's origin in a 7th century England (possibly Northumbria) undergoing a major historical transition into a new era.


By Wikimedia commons - Franks_casket_03.jpg, CC BY-SA 1.0,


Convention gives the front panel primacy. The two pictures carved there are of the Germanic legend "Wayland the Smith" and the biblical Adoration of the Magi. The runes surrounding these however have nothing to do with the images but instead are a sort of riddle, the answer to which is how the casket came to be made from the bones of a whale.

"Fisc flodu ahof on fergen-berig
Warþ gas-ric grorn þær he on greut giswom
Hronæs ban."


(The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff
The terror-king became sad where he swam on the shingle.
Whale's bone.)

The opening word "fisc" in the inscription therefore officially ranks as the first known written English word.

It's worth having a closer look at when next in the BM, or reading further about here in Wikipedia.
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Wed 27 Apr 2016, 08:59

A candidate for the oldest known word uttered in English is "nu" (now).

The story of how a simple cow-herd called Cædmon came to compose his hymn is one that will strike a chord with any tone deaf person who finds him or herself suddenly being demanded to deliver a musical rendition at a party. For Cædmon it got even worse when, after skulking from just such a party in shame, a divine messenger then appeared to him in a dream and demanded of him "Sing to me the beginning of all things." To his own amazement the cow-herd managed to compose and belt out what is also arguably the first known "hit song" in the English language:

nu scylun hergan     hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti     end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur     swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin     or astelidæ
he aerist scop     aelda barnum
heben til hrofe     haleg scepen.
tha middungeard     moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin     æfter tiadæ
firum foldu     frea allmecti


Thanks to Bede and others we know the story behind the song, and though it wasn't written down until a century or so after its composition (between 658 and 680) two surviving manuscript versions, one in Cambridge and one in St Petersburg, vie with each other as some of the earliest parchment records in Old English.

The conventional translation in modern English runs as follows, and within it one may even detect something of an inspiration for a certain JRR Tolkien when it came to naming his fantasy world.

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Wed 27 Apr 2016, 13:36

Well, since everyone knows that God is an Englishman, or at least that God speaks and understands all languages (which I admit does rather suggest that He isn't actually English, but hey ho), you could argue that the very first word in English was either light (lëoht) or day (dæg), as these were the first words spoken by God in creating the universe ...

On angynne ȝescë God hëofon and ëorðan. Sëo eorðe söðliçe
wæs idel and æmtig, and ðëostra wæron öfer ðære nywelnysse bradnysse
and Gödes gast wæs ȝeferod öfer wæteru. God cwæð Þä:
Gewurðe lëoht, and lëoht wearð geworht. God ȝesëah ðä ðæt hit göd wæs,
and hë tödælde ðæt lëoht from ðäm ðëostrum. And hët ðæt lëoht dæg
and þa ðëostru niht: ðä wæs geworden æfen and morgen an dæg.

In beginning shaped God heaven and earth. The earth soothly (truly)
was idle (void) and empty, and darknesses were over of the abyss broadness (surface)
and God’s ghost (spirit) was carried over water. God quoth then:
Become light, and light was made. God saw then that it good was
and he dealt (separated) that light from the darkness. And hight (called) that light day
and the darkness night: then was made even (evening) and morning one day.

(From the 10/11th century Heptateuch of Ælfric of Eynsham, the first attempt at translating the Old Testament into English.)

The very earliest version of the Genesis creation story in OE is the Junius 11 codex which has a different form of words to the usual Old Testament, but God's first words are still light and day: "By the word of God the gleaming light was first called day ...."


Last edited by Meles meles on Wed 27 Apr 2016, 18:21; edited 7 times in total (Reason for editing : gæting alle þem damnëd odd letters right)
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PostSubject: Re: What is the oldest word in the English language   Wed 27 Apr 2016, 14:12

I'm sure I read somewhere ( an old Guiness Book of Records?) that the oldest word is Apple

from an etymology dictionary;

Old English æppel "apple; any kind of fruit; fruit in general," from Proto-Germanic *ap(a)laz (cognates: Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch appel, Old Norse eple, Old High German apful, German Apfel), from PIE *ab(e)l "apple" (cognates: Gaulish avallo "fruit;" Old Irish ubull, Lithuanian obuolys, Old Church Slavonic jabloko "apple"), but the exact relation and original sense of these is uncertain
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