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I'm trying to formalize What is the oldest still-in-use English word? which was closed as vague.

Consider the "age" of a word to be the length of time since it was first used with the (more-or-less) the current meaning and pronunciation.

Obviously, there are lots of words date from Classical Antiquity: Coitus, agenda, and terminus are among thousands of words that would mean the same to Julius Caesar as they do to us.
[Assignment for the under-worked: write a logical, grammatical English sentence consisting entirely of such words; extra credit if it also makes sense in Latin.]

There are even words preserved untouched from ancient Greece (echo, academe, halcyon, stasis).

Are there any word that pre-dates those, such as some word that a Mycenaean potter or a Hittite horseman would say that, I don't know, Matt Lauer would understand perfectly?

My guess is ma, meaning mother, but I have no proof.

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If you're happy to accept "ma" as a "word", it's probably fair to say it's the oldest word in many languages, and very likely predates anything that we'd really call language in the first place. It's an easy first articulation for babies, and I believe it (or something very similar) occurs in many if not most languages. –  FumbleFingers Jul 31 '11 at 19:21
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@FumbleFingers -- I don't know if I would be "happy". What would really make me happy would be a peer-reviewed paper proving that some Homo habilis in Olduvai Gorge crushed the skull of a rival with a rock then climbed atop a termite mound, held the bloody weapon to the sky, and croaked "Monarchy!" but I'm not really expecting that to happen. A man can dream, though. –  Malvolio Jul 31 '11 at 19:30
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Over thousands of years it's rather unlikely that many words could continue to mean the same thing, if for no other reason than that hardly any concepts (referents) would still "mean" the same thing in the minds of men. But I think "Ma" (as the baby/child's term for it's mother) is one of the select few to qualify on that score. –  FumbleFingers Jul 31 '11 at 19:36
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@FumbleFingers: That is not entirely true: a great many of our roots can be traced back up to Prehistoric times. But will Malvolio accept a word that was pronounced somewhat differently, or had different inflectional properties? –  Cerberus Jul 31 '11 at 20:21
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You want the same pronunciation? That’s not reasonable. We don’t know for sure how things used to be said. And you discount most words of Modern English because of the Great Vowel Shift. Seems like an unreasonable question. –  tchrist May 27 '12 at 20:38

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

One candidate would be the Hittite word for "water", which was "watar" or "wadar" (there are different views on exactly what the consonant was).

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We may have a winner. Most people say "watar" or "wadar" today. I'll give it a day if someone comes up with anything older. Utterly irrelevant sidenote : the word otter comes from the same root as water. –  Malvolio Aug 1 '11 at 1:18
    
I'm calling it: water it is. –  Malvolio Aug 1 '11 at 22:01
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Note that Hittite was Indo-European, as is English. So while English "water" is not descended from the Hittite word, they likely both came from the same source. –  T.E.D. Sep 6 '11 at 22:32
    
How old are Hittite words? –  Andrew Grimm Mar 27 '13 at 22:11
    
@Andrew: Wikipedia: "The language is attested in cuneiform, in records from the 16th (Anitta text) down to the 13th century BC, with isolated Hittite loanwords and numerous personal names appearing in an Old Assyrian context from as early as the 20th century BC." Not to be confused with Hitite Microwave, founded in 1985: "designs and develops high performance integrated circuits (ICs), modules, subsystems and instrumentation" –  Hugo Mar 28 '13 at 7:14

I think your question needs a bit more work to make it answerable. I'll discuss the difficulties briefly:

Does a word like pharaoh count? The OED gives the etymology "post-classical Latin Pharaon-, Pharao (Vulgate) < Hellenistic Greek Φαραώ (Septuagint) < Hebrew parʿōh < Egyptian pr-ʿo great house" so it must be three thousand years old at least. But many words have etymological ancestors of similar antiquity, for example white is from the Indo-European root *kwidnos, *kwitnos and is likely at least as old. So what counts as a "still-in-use English word?"

Although it's very plausible that ma is ancient (see Larry Trask, Where do mama/papa words come from?), the OED's first citation for the word in English is from 1823 ("E. Moor Suffolk Words at Pa, It is sometimes rather comic to hear a great chuckle-headed lout—paa-ing his father—or maa-ing his mother.") Searching for antedatings is hard because of the many false positives (for example MA meaning "Master of Arts"). So if you find an antedating, be sure to submit it to the OED!

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Why wouldn't pharaoh count? At least, I'll certainly count it back as far as Φαραώ -- פרעה (parʿōh) is clearly a, ahem, voiceless bilabial plosive and not voiceless labiodental fricative (a /p/ instead of an /f/). Now I'm thinking Torah, which I wouldn't regard a great answer (because it's a proper noun not any residual resentment from Hebrew School), but the book and the name are some 3300 years old. –  Malvolio Jul 31 '11 at 21:46
    
White by contrast wouldn't count. You go up to the average English speaker, hold up a picture of King Tut and say "Φαραώ", he'll say, "Yeah, a pharaoh." Hold up a blank sheet of paper and say "*Kwidnos", he'd think you're insane. And for all I know, he'd be right... –  Malvolio Jul 31 '11 at 21:52
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So your criteria include the word must be recognizable to an average modern English speaker? You should add that to the question. –  Gareth Rees Jul 31 '11 at 22:33
    
How would you measure "recognizable" though? In his question Malvolio mentions "words preserved untouched from ancient Greece" and goes on to mention... echo. I've never been to Ancient Greece, but I don't think they pronounced ηχώ as [ˈekəʊ]. –  RegDwigнt Jul 31 '11 at 23:10
    
@Gareth Rees -- my example was Matt Lauer, an exceptionally unexceptional American TV "personality", but TWIAVP, so substitute whomever you want. I was just trying to get at the idea of the modern English vocabulary. –  Malvolio Aug 1 '11 at 1:07

According to a press release from Reading University, "I", "we", "one", "two" and "three" are among the oldest.

Based on computer models of Indo-European language evolution, they estimate these words to be at least 10,000 years old and possibly as much as 30,000 years.

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If I understand the press release correctly, "I", "we", "one", "two" and "three" in the local language were among the oldest words -- but not the English words! "One" and "two" a barely older than Chaucer in their current form (and were "on" and "twa" before that). –  Malvolio Aug 1 '11 at 1:13
    
@Malvolio If I understand the press release correctly, together with this article, these are the words that have changed the least from Proto-Indo-European to today. They mention 'water' as well, but say that the numerals appear to be the most change resistant of them all. –  j-g-faustus Aug 1 '11 at 2:23
    
A thousand years ago, "I" was "ik"; "one" was "on"; "two" was "twa". ("We" and "three" have been stable, for whatever reason.) I'm pretty sure the BBC was misunderstand the actual paper. –  Malvolio Aug 1 '11 at 2:41
    
@Malvolio: I don't think it's the BBC: I think the University of Reading's press release is garbled. Words change as language changes. I think the paper must be talking about replacement, from whatever source. The given words can all be traced back to IE roots, so they have not been replaced. –  Colin Fine Aug 1 '11 at 10:45
    
@Colin Fine -- That seems like silly too. All words come from other words. "Blog" comes from PIE (from web* meaning "weave", then OE webb, then spider web, when web log, finally blog. Hardly makes "blog" an old word. –  Malvolio Aug 1 '11 at 15:02

Linguistically, that's really not a very good question. A word is not a concrete term, but rather a generalization made by speakers (and not linguists) to distinguish speech units on a pretty shady basis, the most solid of which is actually the writing system (i.e. "a word is what comes between two spaces"), thus, the phrase "cannot" will constitute one word, and the phrase "can not" two. Attempts to use a different basis will most likely drag you into the grey areas of the language, which linguists have a hard time with, such as determining what makes a 'set phrase', and whether it should count as one word or two.

That's not all — other than the elusiveness of the term word in the current language state (synchronous application), there's also the issue of language change over time and between dialects, not less elusive: there's no real way to compare words in ancient Greek or Hebrew to one another or to English words and say 'these are the same words'.

Someone above suggested a rather plausible test of recognition, however it probably still wouldn't do for a scientific test. A few reasons are:

  1. There's no real telling how the words sounded in the ancient languages.
  2. It's often hard to trace the route of a word between distant languages (e.g. if English got it from Greek, from Proto Indo-European, from Latin, etc.).
  3. Even if we did know the old pronunciations, it would almost never be exactly the same, and often less resembling than it seems in the first place. Mind that aside from the consonants and the vowels there are also differences in stress and intonation.

So, although from many aspects it is quite plausible to compare language to a biological system in terms of evolution, it's still not possible to determine 'the oldest word in a language'. A word is new every time it is uttered, and a language changes every day — we can call it by any name we please, but English today is not the same English as yesterday.

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This is a seriously silly question. Suppose, today, we all decided to borrow the PIE word *wopsa 'wasp', and used it, it would become the oldest word in the world, right? Even though it's been dead for 4000 years? The oldest man in the world has to exist, because everybody dies. However, there is no concept of "life" or "death" for words that is not just a metaphor, so there is no way to say what age a word has. If you count pronunciation, then any English word with a long vowel would be out of the running, because all the long vowels changed during the GVS, for instance. –  John Lawler Mar 27 '13 at 20:39
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I think you're falling victim to sorites. Just because there are ambiguous cases does not mean a question is unanswerable. An argument about whether can not is a single word doesn't make it difficult to say that kangaroo is a single word, while Our Father who art in Heaven is not. As for the difficulty of pronunciation (both knowing an early pronunciation and deciding whether it qualifies as "the same"), I'm willing to treat that subjectively; I think wadder is sufficiently close to water that it's the current front runner. [continued] –  Malvolio Mar 27 '13 at 23:01
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As for etymology, it's not part of the question. If an Hittite pronounced his word for kidney as /ˈkɪdni/ by complete coincidence, I'm still counting it. And @JohnLawler, does it help that it was a deliberately silly question? –  Malvolio Mar 27 '13 at 23:02

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