We is old

Pax Arcana

beowulf_raisedThe English language is a frenetic pastiche of influences from other languages — such as those that gave us words like “frenetic” and “pastiche” — but it turns out some words are older than others.

Words like “I,” “we,” “two,” and “three” may be as much as ten thousand years older than other common words — including “four” which was conjured by witches in the medieval period and is not to be trusted. We know this because researchers at Reading University plugged a bunch of words unrelated to technology, plus a mathematical model that plots their relationship to other words in other languages, into a big IBM computer and hit the “print” button:

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.

More interestingly, the researchers say they can predict which words will soon be obsolete based on the rate at which they have changed throughout history:

For example, “dirty” is a rapidly changing word; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to die out soon in English, along with “stick” and “guts”.

Verbs also tend to change quite quickly, so “push”, “turn”, “wipe” and “stab” appear to be heading for the lexicographer’s chopping block.

I guess this is all kind of interesting. But in my opinion there are really only two kinds of people — those who merely observe the world and those who shape it. For example, in the time it took me to read this article about old words, I invented three new ones — sklurp, yupetide, and plosh. Whoops, here comes another one: TRUNY. I guess we all have our talents.

Oldest English words identified [BBC]


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