These Are 23 of the Oldest Words Ever Spoken

Telling someone "those eyebrows are on fleek" would've been complete nonsense five years ago. (Maybe it's still nonsense to you today. No judgment.) Trendy words pop into our vernacular every once in awhile, but how about some of the most common words? To our ancestors, even basic phrases would seem as foreign as "on fleek." But saying "The old man spit on the worm ashes"? They'd get that message no problem.

Gets Better With Age

In 2013, a team of researchers announced that they have identified words that have remained largely unchanged for 15,000 years. That puts us back to the Mesolithic Era, when the Sahara was still wet and fertile and pigs were just becoming domesticated. The team, led by Mark Pagel at the University of Reading in England, came up with 23 "ultraconserved words." Until this study was published, most linguists assumed words evolve too rapidly to survive longer than 9,000 years.

To track down these words, the researchers looked for cognates, which are words that have similar meanings and sounds in different languages (like "father": padre, pere, pater, pitar). They found cognates shared by the seven language families that formed the 700 modern languages used by more than half of today's population. Then, they translated the cognates into what they believed their ancestral words, or "proto-words," would be, and compared them. After all that, the 23 long-lasting words emerged. They were all shared by at least four language families, and one ("thou") was shared by all seven.


The 23 words range from the expected to the ... huh? Here is the list of oldest words, grouped by how many language families share them:

Seven: thou

Six: I

Five: not, that, we, to give, who

Four: this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

Word to Your Mother

This research suggests the existence of an ancient mother tongue. This "proto-Eurasiatic" language then spun off into the aforementioned seven language families and served as the common ancestor to the 700 languages half the world speaks today. "We've never heard this language, and it's not written down anywhere," Pagel, an evolutionary theorist, told the Washington Post. "But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other."

Hungry for more words? Check out Guy Deutscher's "The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto February 28, 2018