Oldest English Words Identified

BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | ‘Oldest English words’ identified

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.” Sound and concept Across the Indo-European languages – which include most of the languages spoken from Europe to the Asian subcontinent – the vocal sound made to express a given concept can be similar. New words for a concept can arise in a given language, utilising different sounds, in turn giving a clue to a word’s relative age in the language.

At the root of the Reading University effort is a lexicon of 200 words that is not specific to culture or technology, and is therefore likely to represent concepts that have not changed across nations or millennia.

“We have lists of words that linguists have produced for us that tell us if two words in related languages actually derive from a common ancestral word,” said Professor Pagel. When we speak to each other we’re playing this massive game of Chinese whispers Mark Pagel, University of Reading “We have descriptions of the ways we think words change and their ability to change into other words, and those descriptions can be turned into a mathematical language,” he added.

The researchers used the university’s IBM supercomputer to track the known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages. They have integrated that into an algorithm that will produce a list of words relevant to a given date.

“You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future,” Professor Pagel told BBC News. “From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror.”

That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the Conqueror. Words that have not diverged since then would comprise similar sounds to their modern descendants, whose meanings would therefore probably be recognisable on sound alone. However, the model cannot offer a guess as to what the ancestral words were. It can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of Hastings. Dirty business.

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.

William the Conqueror (Getty) 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.

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.

Again, the model cannot predict what words may change to; those linguistic changes are according to Professor Pagel “anybody’s guess”.

High fidelity “We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of the Indo-European languages throughout history,” Professor Pagel said. “Here’s a sound that has been connected to a meaning – and it’s a mostly arbitrary connection – yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years.”

The work casts an interesting light on the connection between concepts and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the evolution of a dynamic set of words. “If you’ve ever played ‘Chinese whispers’, what comes out the end is usually gibberish, and more or less when we speak to each other we’re playing this massive game of Chinese whispers. Yet our language can somehow retain its fidelity.

Positive Feedback

There seems to have been some positive feedback from the radio show last week. I got a text from Kath in the week to tell me the manager of Saint FM gave a ‘fantastic report’. I think he was also talking about the 2 extra ad hoc hours we did. A couple of the other DJ’s also gave positive feedback. It’ll be interesting to hear the CD recording.

I’ve yet to see Kath to talk to her about it some more and find out what has been said. I’m still seriously considering doing my own show if there’s room on the airwaves. At the very least I’d like to help Kath with her own show again.

Radio Debut

Today I was on local radio. Saint FM to be precise. Broadcasting to the Maldon and Dengie area from St. Peter’s School in Burnham.

Kath persuaded me to go on her show, “The Universal Therapy Show”, after I’d talked to her about my re-union with my Aunt and Uncle and Cousin. She thought there would be an interested audience out there so I obliged.

Much of what I’ve written about here was talked about; finding and meeting Uncle Fred and Auntie Joan, what impact that seems to have had on me and relationships in general, researching family trees. I felt relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed myself. 

It got to the end of the hour and the 2 people who were supposed to take over the next show didn’t arrive. Kath asked me if I was alright to hang around while she took the show, I said yes.

We bantered and bounced off each other and I found horoscopes on the internet and read them out and got the hang of the sliders and buttons that control the microphone and the music.

By the time we finished I felt I really could do my own show.

Saint FM is an independent community radio station licensed by Ofcom, governed by a board of directors and based at St. Peter’s High School in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex.

Burning Bridges

“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

— Tom Stoppard —

A Question of Attraction

What is about some people that causes an excitement, an instant attraction?

A man came to the office today to drop in a quote for some work for us and I went down to answer the door. He was tall, roughly my age, rugged with slightly pock-marked skin, and fairly good looking. If I’d passed him in the street I might not have thought much about him. But it was his manner that instantly attracted me the minute he started talking.

He stood close, reached out and touched my shoulder in an inclusive manner, smiled a lot, asked my name, smelt of a nice aftershave (which was at odds with his jeans and Hi-Viz jacket).

I wanted to stand closer to him when I felt that tingle go through my stomach and my arms and legs. Of course, he may have just wanted to endear himself to me, and in turn to the organisation, because he hoped to do the work he was quoting for. He would have known he was in competition with at least 2 others.

But I felt more than that. I wanted to ask him more about himself. I wanted to ask him to stay longer. I wanted to call him back and ask him about his terrier that was perched on the dashboard of his van. I wanted to say I was an animal lover too. I didn’t want him to go.

It all seems unreasonable now but the memory has lingered in my mind and in my gut – that hot rush you get when you are attracted to someone. It’s that feeling that has lingered all day.

He may not even remember me now. He may not have taken much notice of me when he stood there talking to me. I may never know.

It’s not something I’ve felt often and it was unexpected. The thing I’m curious about is what causes it? What made me feel that when he may well not have done?