“Worm,” “Ashes,” “Mother” — A 15,000-Year History of the Oldest English Words

Wednesday, April 125 min read

Old English was spoken from around 450 CE until 1150 CE, and it’s where many modern English words were derived — but that doesn’t mean the language got its start in the fifth century. Some English words have been around for 15,000 years, since the end of the last ice age.

Unsurprisingly, these early words addressed many basic human needs and functions. The origins of these primal words are spread across the seven ancient language families of Europe and Asia, but were so widely used that they eventually made their way into Old English with a few modifications to their spelling or pronunciation. A study led by the University of Reading in the U.K. has pinpointed 23 of these so-called “ultraconserved” words that have stood the test of time.


Fire has played an extraordinary role in human development, so it's no wonder that “fire” and “ashes” are two of the terms on this list. Styled as æsce in Old English — which transformed into “asshe” in Middle English — this word refers to the powdery remains of a fire.


This type of bark comes from a tree, not a dog, referring to the tough, protective layer of woody plants. One of the oldest forms of this word comes from the Old Norse börkr, which eventually transformed into “bark” in English.


Primitive humans would have used their version of “black,” written as blæc in Old English, to describe the color of the night sky or soot from a fire. Other languages styled it as blakkr (Old Norse) and blah (German). This is the only color word that appeared in the study.


This unsurprising addition was styled as fyre in Old English and “fier” in Middle English. The oldest usage of “fire” is as a noun; the verb was introduced in the 13th century with a usage meaning “arouse, inflame, or excite.”


Just as “flow” is used as a verb and a noun in modern English, in Old English, flowan meant “flow, stream, issue; become liquid, melt” or “abound, overflow.” This early word related to human interaction with the natural world, especially with water.


One of the hallmarks of being human is having a sense of community, so it makes sense that “give” made the list. In Old English, giefan was defined as “to give, bestow, deliver to another” or “to allot, grant, commit, devote, entrust.” Even 15,000 years ago, humans depended on one another to survive by “giving” to each other.


Spelled hond or hand in Old English (the plural was handa), the human hand has been one of our greatest tools for thousands of years.


Hearing is an important human sense, but thousands of years ago, it was a matter of life or death while hunting, evading, or raising young. Heran in Old English meant “hear, perceive by the ear, listen (to),” but it could also mean “obey, follow, accede to, grant, or judge.”


The modern version of the pronoun “I” (used to refer to oneself) is actually a shortening of the Old English ic. Other older languages had their own variations: the Old Frisian ik, Old Norse ek, and Norwegian eg. It was reduced to “i” by the mid-12th century and was later capitalized (to mark it as a distinct word) during the mid-13th century.


Spelled man or mann in Old English, this word to describe a male human is the same across many ancient languages, including Old Saxon, Swedish, Dutch, and Old High German. “Woman” did not make the list.


One of the most primitive connections in human nature must be between a mother and a child. “Mother” transformed with slight variations over the centuries, from the Old English modor to the Middle English “moder.” The “d” was replaced by a “th” sometime in the early 16th century. Its counterpart, “father,” is not on the list.


The modern adverb “not” is most often used as a function word to make a word (or group of words) negative: “The tree fell not one foot in front of her.” It is an alteration of “naught,” from the Old English nawiht, meaning “nothing.”


The two variations of “old” in Old English were ald (Anglian) and eald (West Saxon, Kentish). Just as “old” has various modern usages, ald had a few alternate definitions, including “antique, of ancient origin; long in existence or use; near the end of the normal span of life; elder, mature, or experienced.” The words “young” and “new” are not featured on the list.


From Old English pullian, this word's earliest use in English meant “to pluck off (wool)” or “to draw out.” It was later shortened to “pull” in the 14th century.


The oldest use of “spit” — spittan or spætan in Old English — means “to expel saliva.” It was even a gesture of contempt in its earliest usage. “Spit” as a noun (for a rod used to roast meat) emerged later in Old English.


Old English contains a few letters that are not present in modern English: thorn (þ), pronounced “th,” and ash (æ), pronounced like the “a” in “cat.” So, the Old English word þæt is pronounced as “that.” This demonstrative pronoun has been used for thousands of years.


Similar to the pronunciation of “that,” “this” — þis in Old English — is another demonstrative pronoun that has been around just as long as its counterpart.


Another pronoun that has lasted for thousands of years is “thou,” better known as þu in Old English. It was eventually replaced by the pronoun “you” in Middle English, but “thou” is still commonly seen in religious scripture today.


Just as it is used today, the Old English pronoun we is used to denote “I and another or others.” It parallels the Old Norse ver, Danish vi, Dutch wij, and German wir.


This important word serves as a pronoun, adverb, and adjective in modern English. In Old English, it was first used as the pronoun hwæt, referring to things in abstraction, or meaning “why; indeed, surely, or truly.”


“Who,” spelled hwa in Old English, could mean “what; anyone, someone; each; whosoever.” Other European words for “who” came from the same source, including the Danish hvo, the Swedish vem, and the German wer.


The only animal to make the list, wurm came into Old English as a variant of wyrm. It had a broader definition than the modern “worm” (small, burrowing invertebrates that birds like to eat). In ancient times, wyrm described a range of things, including serpents, snakes, reptiles, scorpions, maggots, and the (alleged) causes of diseases.


The final word to make this list of ancient words is “ye,” another pronoun meaning “you.” It was written as ge in Old English. Later, it became the article “the” because the “y” in “ye” closely resembled the letter thorn (þ), which is pronounced with the “th” sound. By the time printers came about in the late 15th century, the “þ” was all but forgotten — “y” was used in its place because they looked so similar.

Featured image credit: lechatnoir/ iStock

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