June 19 – Verb. Sap

Today’s factismal: One of the oldest words in the English language is “I”.

If you want to see which animal traits have been around the longest, you look for animals with those traits; the more animals with those common features, the longer they have been around. That’s because you’d have to have a common ancestor to get the shared trait and it would take a more common (and hence older) ancestor to get it spread around a larger and more diverse group of animals. For example, there are a lot more animals that have gills than have lungs so gills evolved earlier.

It turns out that the same is true for words. If you want to find out which words have been around the longest, you look for words that appear in the most languages. When scientists looked at words from a variety of languages, they found that the most common words were pronouns (words like “I”, “me”, “thee”) and numbers. Based on the number of languages that these words were found in, they estimated that the oldest words may stretch back 20,000 years.

Of course, those words haven’t made it all that time unchanged. The English word I goes back to the Old English Ic which can be traced to the Middle High German Ih which came from the Latin Ego which was spawned by the Greek Egō which was probably bartered from the Phoenicians who stole it from the Sumerians. But the I’s progress shows another important feature of old words; those that have only a few ways to say tend to stick around the longest while those with lots of different variants drop by the wayside. For example, the word “dirty” has 46 different variants and so isn’t expected to last more than another 500 years or so. (Teenagers around the world with dirty rooms may now rejoice.) That’s why yclept is now relegated to crossword puzzles and trivia games while named is still used in everyday conversation.

As you might guess, figuring out how long a word has been around isn’t the only thing that interests linguists and word nerds. They’d also like to know exactly what a word means (as opposed to what old Noah Webster thought 200 years ago).  If you’d like to help, then head over to the Verb Corner where you’ll read funny stories and then explain what a verb in the story means:
http://www.gameswithwords.org/VerbCorner/

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