Chasing the Oldest English Word

"What is the oldest English word? How to define this requires some thought." by Talia Felix, Assistant Editor

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Could the answer vary depending on one’s current reason for asking the question?

If today’s government in Iceland (a country of nearly 400,000 people who mostly speak Icelandic) foolishly allowed 500,000 new immigrants who speak French to all move there tomorrow, a new language couldn’t emerge by next week, could it?

Does a language need to already exist before a person can speak it? If I landed next to those Scandinavians and asked them “Please teach me the new language of this place”, I might have gotten some funny looks. Or worse.

Large influxes of new immigrants often don’t get along with the people who were already there, and vice versa; it’s often the children born after the drastic shift has happened (or who were very young at the time) who first recognize that the only sensible thing to do is get along with everyone else as much as possible, and who therefore hammer out a way they and their friends can all talk together.

The Scandinavians who gathered after landing their ships surely didn’t say one word that was unfamiliar to their parents. But I can see at the same time that their speech was happening in a new context and deserves to be considered part of something new. In a way, they did speak the first English. In another way, their grandchildren might have been the first babies to grow up hearing their parents speak something like what English was to become, the first to grow up knowing English existed (whether they had a name for it or not), and the first to be justified in writing “Mother Tongue: English” on their passport applications.

But it must be inconvenient when someone asks “What was the first English word?” to respond “Define English”. :grin:

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Thought provoking!

The way I would do it, is what words are in the “English” lexicon TODAY, and what is the earliest it was used in ANY language, since many/most English words will have come from a previous language.

For example “DOGMA” is spelled the same in English as it is in Greek. Therefore, since it sits firmly in the English language today, it can be traced back to Greek texts which predate ALL the invasions of England (Vikings, Romans, Britons).

What English words could we find spelled identically in cuneform from the fertile crescent? Maybe there are none, so we can say English’s earliest word(s) came from Greek civilization?

One of my favorite suppositions/theories is for the etymology for vernacular. It had to have come from Latins making fun of the “mountain people”-speak of the local Mount Verna yocals. I went to school in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and we had fun learning all the mountain-people words (like “buggy” for spoiled food), including their accent. We would adopt the local vernacular in jest, practising our mountain-folk accents for pure joy, but I continue to call food “buggy” to this day (with a wry smile on my face to the unitiaed listeners-- aka my kids! LOL).

I think we could document the intersection of languages (How many words could be in a Greek AND English dictionary if we could use a database to merge or “venn” the intersection?).

If we timestamp all the words, and pay close attention to spellings, we could have a splendid database which could be used to do for lexicography what sportscasters do for baseball or basketball stats (most of which are meaningless, but darned if their databases don’t come up with some really interesting comparisons of old and young players!).

I also did my own personal history of “rock and roll” to see if there was a seminal song. I found there was: “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. I also found 3 or 4 similar songs in what i’d consider to be different genres, one of which was done near the same nieghborhood in Philadelphia area as Bill Haley (Jimmy Preston)-- they shared stages sometimes. So rock and roll was born from jazz, blues, and country (Hank Williams has a song almost identical to Rock Around the Clock). What I found interesting is that it was almost objective result-- the first Rock song-- instead of being subjective. That’s debatable of course, but like you pointed out, when can we say the Angles, Sax, Britons, and Romans all melded together and began speaking and writing ENGLISH? I’d say that’s probably more subjective, but is it? English is what people speak today, which we can clearly identify as English-speakers almost precisely. But one day, perhaps in a new dark ages, people will be isolated from one another, and English will bastardize into 2, 3, and many new languages just as Latin did (French, Spanish, Portugese and even English itself to a lesser extent).

I’d like to see more objectivity in language, and I think we can do it online just like we do it naturally in everyday speech. But with a sprinkling (a LIGHT sprinkling please) of tech and lots and lots of people’s contributions and research, I think language will become as well-documented as sports-- better in fact bc language is far more useful.

You can’t find the oldest English word in a language other than English. Or I guess you can, if you reinterpret the question entirely.

The etymology theory you shared for vernacular is interesting. You have sauce for that? If true, I think it would enhance the entry for that word on this website.

Perhaps you could build something beautiful with your baseball-etymology thesis. Good luck.

The more I consider different ways to reinterpret the question, the more I think it would be a good idea to come up with a better question instead.

[quote=“Scott, post:5, topic:90, username:Scott”]
You can’t find the oldest English word in a language other than English.[/quote]

The first recorded words of a language are usually in the margins of writings of languages such as Latin, and interspersed words.

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Thank you – I can see why that would be, now that you’ve said it, but the idea never occurred to me. (IMO that doesn’t make Scott’s point wrong, but tends to confirm it, while also showing where to look for examples.)

Edited to add: I guess, the way Scott has used it, there’s more than one way to interpret the phrase “in English”. One of them is “the writers believe they’re using English as opposed to some other language”, which they would believe while making notes in the margin or inserting words. Another is “the document is written in English”, which of course is not what you described.

To give some credit here… The English language, like all identities, must have blurry and ambiguous boundaries. The same reality can be seen even in something as simple as a chair. There are some pieces of furniture that push the boundary of what a chair is, so far, that you question if you know what a chair is at all.

Asking for the first English word seems similar to asking for a strict boundary from something that does not have one.

I would say, if a writer believes they are using a language other than English, the first English word probably is not to be found there.

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