Humans are fascinated by old things. Whether it’s prehistoric dinosaur fossils or ancient scrolls, we’re innately driven to want to explore the past and find out what life was like long ago.
One unusual bridge to the past is language. We don’t know exactly when language was first used for a number of reasons (no recording devices back then), but we do know that it was a really long time ago. And we know that modern language has ancient roots; words have adapted and evolved over time along with humans themselves. Some words we still use today have been around in some form for thousands of years.
So what is the oldest word in the world? We can approach this question in a couple of different ways. First, we can search for the oldest written word. Second, we can try to determine the oldest word that was spoken aloud. We’ll try both approaches and see what we come up with.
Searching For The Oldest Word In The World
And So It Is Written
One might think that this part of the question would be easier to answer because a written word would have some evidence to corroborate its claim to being the oldest word in the world. But one would be wrong. This part is actually surprisingly more complicated, partially because scholars disagree about what counts as writing. Do glyphs (pictographic writing) count? Or is it only “true writing” when graphemes (symbols that represent sounds) come into play?
Additionally, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when certain writing systems were created and which ones came first. The general consensus is that Sumerian was the first written language, developed in southern Mesopotamia around 3400 or 3500 BCE. At first, the Sumerians would make small tokens out of clay representing goods they were trading. Later, they began to write these symbols on clay tablets. This earliest form of the language was Sumerian cuneiform, which consisted of “wedge-shaped” glyphs.
We don’t know which exact words came first in this language, but based on example charts showing the evolution of Sumerian cuneiform, it may have been symbols for god, earth, man or woman.
Speaking The Same Language
Another way we can think about our central question is by asking “What is the oldest spoken word in the world?” Realistically, it was probably a sound like “Ow!” or a warning call meaning “Danger!” but you could make the argument that a sound isn’t necessarily a word, per se.
A study from researchers at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom discovered some of the oldest words in the world using a statistical model to study cognates (words that sound similar and mean the same thing across languages).
The researchers looked at the frequency of cognates across seven language groups and came up with a list of 23 “ultraconserved” words that appeared in at least four of the seven groups. They believe these words are nearly 15,000 years old, surviving since the end of the last ice age. The researchers argue that because the cognates exist across these disparate languages, they likely all evolved from a single “proto-Eurasiatic” language.
For those of you keeping score at home, this means there may be 23 “oldest words in the world,” rather than just one. Here’s the full list:
- to hear
- to pull
- to flow
- to spit