For language wonks: oldest English words identified?


A new study which tries to identify the rate of evolutionary language change apparently gives us tools with which to uncover the English words that likely come from pre-historic times.

The idea is pretty cool:

“What the researchers found was 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.

For example, the words ‘I’ and ‘who’ are among the oldest, along with the words ‘two’, ‘three’, and ‘five’. The word ‘one’ is only slightly younger.

Time-travellers would find a few sounds familiar in William’s words
The word ‘four’ experienced a linguistic evolutionary leap that makes it significantly younger in English and different from other Indo-European languages.

Meanwhile, the fastest-changing words are projected to die out and be replaced by other words much sooner.”

Read the full article here.

I don’t know why, but I’ve been fascinated by the way we can trace human history through linguistic analysis. The study kinda got a black-eye following WWII because of the way Nazi propagandists used the technique to try to identify the Aryan race.

(There’s no such thing as an Aryan race as I understand it, what there might be is an ancient language which has had a subset of its vocabulary survive into modern times in a large number of European languages.)

Because of the backlash to the way the Nazi’s used such arguments, the research field has been sort of quietly ignored for years. But apparently there are still people looking into the fundamental questions. And this study at the University of Reading looks to be the fruit of their labor. Cool.

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