Talky Tuesday: 23 words

Do you know what the oldest words in a lot of the world’s languages are and how old they are? Let’s take a look!

What do these words all have in common: Ashes, bark, black, fire, to flow, to give, hand, to hear, I, man/male, mother, not, old, to pull, to spit, that, this, thou, we, what, who, worm, and ye?

The answer is that each one of them has been traced back 15,000 years, at least to common roots in a proto human language, and are the ones that have lasted the longest through time, spreading to seven very different but early language families, including Indo-European — which includes English.

This is kind of remarkable for a few reasons. First, words in any language are only expected to last about 9,000 years before they’re replaced, and some lost languages haven’t even lasted that long.

Now, granted, if you went back to one of those humans 15,000 years ago and tried to speak to them just using the modern English versions of these words, they probably wouldn’t understand you at all. Some of the proto-words might be close, or might not, but the concepts themselves are clearly very important to humans.

What’s interesting about the list is that it breaks down into a majority of nouns and pronouns — seven of each — leaving us with five verbs, two adjectives, one conjunction, and one multi-purpose word, “what,” which can be a pronoun, adverb, interrogative, and so much more.

Nouns

The nouns are obviously connected to the natural world and things very important to what would have been nomadic tribes at the time, possibly seeking shelter in either trees or caves. These words are:

Ashes: The results of a fire, of course, but discovering their properties when mixed with water (you get lye) would have led to things like making soap out of fat, and ashes themselves also have a lot of ritualistic and symbolic uses, even to this day. Ash Wednesday, anyway? Not to mention that ash and soot would have made a great pigment for very early cave art.

Bark: Not as in what the dog says, but as in what the tree has. Wood would have been a very important material at the time, not only for making temporary shelters or mounts for tools chipped out of flint (think spears, bows and arrows, and axe handles), wood could also have been used to make boats or rafts. But at the same time, people were also discovering the medicinal properties of various plants, including trees, and what was eventually synthesized as aspirin in modern times was originally found in tea brewed from willow bark.

Fire: The ultimate in high tech at the time, and not only another major use for wood, but a source of ash. Fire would have provided heat, light, and the ability to cook raw meat. It also may have served to scare off wild animals, or even have been used in hunting by burning their habitats to flush them into the open for easier killing. (That last one is conjecture, but I’m sure that some clever early human of 13000 BCE thought of it.)

Hand: It’s kind of hard to miss the significance of these, since most of us have them, and most of those have four fingers and a thumb, and for humans they are the tool with which we made all other tools. They are also one of our primary ways of getting to know the world through touch and, eventually, allowed us to create the art of writing down words — and so much more. It’s no wonder that this very important but fundamental body part would be named very early on.

Man/male: Yes, woman and female don’t show up on the list, but we don’t know for sure how gendered these terms were at the beginning. They could have also indicated human at their most simple and, indeed, many indigenous peoples throughout the world gave them selves that just indicated “the people” or “the humans.” Still, it does show that even back then, we were developing an identity as to what we were.

Mother: This one is a testament to the nature of humans to form family units with a particularly strong mother and child connection. The word “father” doesn’t pop up so early, but whether that’s because early humans had the same paternal connection as dogs — i.e., wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and done — humans do have one very unique trait that no other mammals or even primates share. It takes us a fuck of a long time to mature to adulthood. Most animals do it in a couple of years. Humans, though? We don’t even hit puberty until… well, it’s a number that bounces around depending upon how well nourished a particular generation is, but it can happen as early as seven or eight (which is already senior citizen for dogs) or as late as eighteen or nineteen, or at any point in between. On top of that, though, development of our human brain is not complete until about our mid-20s. So unlike any other animals, we rely on our parents for a lot longer and, in ancient times, Dad was probably off making your step-siblings while Mom stayed loyal and protective. Hence the longevity of this word. Which, also, in almost all languages, has a couple of “M” sounds in it, which is not coincidentally one of the first vocalizations made by human babies in every culture.

Worm: The actual meaning of this one is a little vague, but considering that it sprung up among pre-agricultural societies who lived in arid climates, I’m guessing that it has nothing to do with earthworms and, instead, referred either to snakes or maggots or both, the former which would have been common desert threats, and the latter which would have been common sights on rotting food or corpses.

Pronouns

These are the words that stand in for nouns and which are very important when it comes to making it clear who is doing what, with which, and to whom. I mean, without pronouns, you’d wind up having to use proper nouns in everything, and always saying, “John gives Mary the ball” or “The Dodgers and the Giants kind of have a rivalry” can get tedious if that’s the only construction you can fall back on.

I mean, you don’t have to specify who’s giving Katchi in this case, right? Watch that video, dammit. It’ll make you smile.

I: Clearly the most egocentric pronoun but, come on. What else are you going to refer to yourself as? Oddly enough, if you thump your chest hard enough, the sound that comes out actually does sound sort of like a long I.

That: Meaning, of course, the thing over there, and that’s a pretty useful distinction. What if it’s brunch, 13000 BCE, and Brenda sits at your table and starts to reach for your bagel? You’d really need to be able to tell her, “No, Brenda. Back off and eat that one.” Over there is implied, but that’s the point.

This: And, of course, the opposite of “that.” This is what you invite friends and family to share. It’s the inclusive location pronoun. “Hey, Mom — want some of this soup?” “Yo, Chad, I made this for you, bro.” And so on.

Thou: Although it’s long since fallen out of English, here’s the funny story. We used to have a formal and familiar form of “you” in English, and if you’ve ever studied French, German, or Spanish, you know the concept. The funny thing, though, is that English actually dropped the familiar instead of the formal, unlike other Romance languages, so that “You” is the original formal form. Thou in English, though, was originally very familiar. Shakespeare even refers to “thouing” someone who’s a superior in order to insult them. And the order of “thou” pronouns is thus: subject, thou, as in “thou are a twat.” Object pronoun, “thee,” as in “I shall smite thee, braggard,” or “thy country ‘tis of thee.” Finally, possessive is either “thy” or “thine,” depending on the word that follows, much like how a and an work in English. “Thy countenance is like a buffalo’s arse,” or “Thine eyes shine with fire,” e.g.

We: Once you had a tribe composed of I’s and Thous, you had to come up with a bigger collective, and this was it. First person plural, although it is kind of hard to wrap your head around the idea of it still being first person once it does become plural. That’s a question for the grammarians to answers, I suppose.

Who: An obviously needed no brainer for cases where you had no idea who any of the subjects or objects or whatnot in the above were. Like “what,” this word was meant to clarify shit, and fast. It’s just happy sticking to being one part of speech, more on which below.

Ye: This used to be the possessive for you, meaning that it meant “your.” Are those ye pantaloons? Unfortunately, due to typographical stupidity later, in which the character Þ was mistaken for ye (or just became a “y” because that was the closest looking letter in the typecase), the word “Þe” got warped into this totally wrong usage as “The.” It’s not! It was always a pronoun, although a discontinued one, and never an article. Anyway, nowadays, as noted above we just use “your” in English to mean the same thing

Verbs

Verbs are the action words that give language its flow, and you literally can’t do anything without them. Interesting, then, that there would be fewer of them than pronouns, but… whatevs!

To flow: Obviously, the most important connection to early humans and this would be rivers and tides, but there’s another possibility, considering Shamans. What about blood flow or the like? Again, though, not being agrarian yet, I’m guessing that the most important meaning of flow here was more related to the connection of seasons, the movement of rivers and winds, and the timing of regular floods.

To give: Not really an unusual idea, is it? Without group cooperation way back when, we probably would not have made it out of that crap.

To hear: Another cultural marker — what if hearing each other back then had helped save society? Or what if it didn’t? This question in particular is very important.

To pull: Kind of the birth of engineering. How do you think that the pyramids and other such structures were built in the first place? Dragging block, putting shit in place, later, rinse, repeat.

To spit: I’m not sure whether this was meant to be a symbol of contempt, a method of wetting the clay or mortar that became bricks that turned into pyramids or more, or how a mother fed her child after she’d stopped making milk. But… it’s an ancient word so, clearly, an important function.

Adjectives

These are words that describe nouns, and the oddest part here is that we only have two of them.

Black: This most likely came from all that ash and fire going on, or not. But it may also refer to the color of night, which would have been a fearful thing for all primitives. “Ooh… Sun goes away, now what?” Ironically, there was now word for “white” for centuries. Studies have shown, though, that when color names emerge in cultures, they always do it in the same order. Black is always first, with white following after, and then red. Some cultures stop naming there, but if they go on, the next color is either green or yellow, followed by the one of the pair not named, and then blue. After blue is when all of the other color names develop. English has eleven — but note that these only refer to the base shade, which is how there can be so many different shades of red or purple or green but still only eleven main names.

Old: Another word that developed with no defined opposite at the time, but maybe that’s a good thing, as it implies that the elders of the tribe were useful IRL. No. Really. They were and are. Who else could teach the others about what to do the next time the entire forest catches on fire when the last time was forty or fifty years ago?

Conjunction

Not: The only conjunction, but c’mon. Add “Not” before anything, instant negation, so it’s actually probably the ultimate word to use except, of course, in improv. If you don’t have a word for “young,” then “not old” will get across the same concept. “Not black,” “not fire,” “not flow,” and “not I,” for example, all have specific meanings very different than the not conjunction alone.

But what about this?

What: About the only other word in English besides “what” that can be used as almost any part of speech is “fuck,” which makes “what the fuck” a pretty versatile sentence all on its own. But let’s dive into the many identities of our friend what.

Adjective: It becomes an adjective when it introduces a noun clause in a question. For example, “What kind of car are you buying?” “What movie do you want to see tonight?” Here, “what” is describing the unknown status of the answer, i.e. modifying a noun.

Adverb: Sometimes the question isn’t about a noun, but about a verb, in which case what easily slides over to this part of speech. “What do you mean by that, Wanda?” “What do they care?” Both answers will be expressed with verbs: “I mean, I think your cooking stinks, Agatha!” “They don’t care at all, actually,” so once again, the “what” is modifying the target part of speech here.

Pronoun: Besides modifying a noun, “what” can directly stand in for one, becoming a pronoun. “What we need is a lot more money.” “What is love?” “I try to do what I can.” Notice that these aren’t necessarily questions. In non-question sentences, you can often determine whether what is being used as a pronoun by replacing it with “that which” and seeing if it still makes sense. “I try to do that which I can” makes sense. “That which kind of car are you buying?” does not. Just be sure to put back the “what” once you’re done testing it so that you don’t come across as someone trying to appear much more literate than they are, because the whole “that which” thing in this form is archaic and pretentious.

Interjection: A general reaction of surprise to something someone has just heard. “So… I just caught my son in bed with your husband.” “What?!” “They’re having a sale on fresh chicken. Only 28 cents a pound.” What?” “Why is the cat sleeping in the fridge?” “What?” And so on.

The only ones it doesn’t turn up as are noun, verb, preposition, conjunction, and article.

So there’s your starter kit of the 23 most ancient words developed as a part of human language that are still with us today with their original meanings although, of course, not in their original forms or spellings — although sometimes they can be preserved across language families in surprisingly recognizable ways if you understand how spelling and pronunciation shift from one to the other.

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