Nineteenth-century History

Oldest English Words

The BBC is running an interesting article about the oldest words in the English language. Researchers are currently saying that they believe the oldest words still in use in modern English are “I”, “we”, “two” and “three” which date back tens of thousands of years. They also cite words such as “squeeze”, “guts”, “stick” and “bad” as words that will go extinct. Here is a portion of the article:

Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say.

Reading University researchers claim “I”, “we”, “two” and “three” are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Their computer model analyses the rate of change of words in English and the languages that share a common heritage.

The team says it can predict which words are likely to become extinct – citing “squeeze”, “guts”, “stick” and “bad” as probable first casualties.

“We use a computer to fit a range of models that tell us how rapidly these words evolve,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading.

“We fit a wide range, so there’s a lot of computation involved; and that range then brackets what the true answer is and we can estimate the rates at which these things are replaced through time.”

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2 Comments
  1. February 27, 2009 10:51 am 

    Was this study performed by the Department of Applied Linguistics at Reading? It seems to have a very good reputation so they might be right in their predictions for words on their way out, but “bad” going away? What does that say about the state of society?

  2. February 27, 2009 11:48 am 

    I assume it was done by the Department of Applied Linguistics. I can’t say for sure though as the article simply says the study was done by researches at Reading University. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the idea of “bad” as one of the words going away. To me, it seems like “bad” is too much of a fundamental word in English to really ever disappear. I could be wrong though.

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