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 https://www.etymonline.com/columns/post/chasing-the-oldest-english-word

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: