Skip to main content

Oldest English Words Revealed?

A game of Scrabble might not have been all that different in Stone Age times.

Using a computer simulation, a British researcher says he's examined the rate of change of words in languages to reveal the oldest English-sounding words, which would have been used by Stone Age humans 20,000 years ago.

Among the Stone Age words that presumably would've sounded then much like they do now in the English language: I, we, two and three.

The study concludes that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones. While it cannot necessary predict exactly what words were used 20,000 years ago — there's little to go on, since writing was invented only about 5,000 years ago — it makes some interesting guesses.

"We have lists of words that linguists have produced for us that tell us if two words in related languages actually derive from a common ancestral word," said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, in a BBC article. "We have descriptions of the ways we think words change and their ability to change into other words, and those descriptions can be turned into a mathematical language."

The ability to speak arose about 300,000 years ago, scientists think, thanks to a pair of anatomical changes that separate humans from other primates: the development of the hyoid bone, which supports the tongue, and a drop in the larynx that made it easier to choke but also easier to speak.

The computer program's reasoning, arguably speculative, predicts words that will eventually become extinct too, because they are changing rapidly nowadays: squeeze, guts, stick and bad.

"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," Professor Pagel told BBC News.

Pagel thinks some of the simple words (like the first list above) involve sounds that may have been in use 40,000 years ago.

For the record, the most common five words used in English today, according to "The Reading Teachers Book of Lists": the, of, and, a, to.

Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.