The oldest words in English that are still in use today

Natural languages ​​are very flexible systems that are constantly changing. In English, for example, every day about 30 new words appear and exactly the same amount is outdated.

But at the same time, there are still lexemes that have passed through thousands of years and have practically not changed their sound and meaning. Today we are talking about the oldest words in the English language that have survived to this day.

The list is formed from the scientific works of linguists (study 1 and study 2), who tried to trace the etymology of some words down to the Proto-Indo-European language.

In Old English the word “we” looked like wē, in Proto-Germanic it looked like wīz. Researchers believe that in Proto-Indo-European it sounded the same or with minimal phonetic changes.

Most likely, the word has survived so well because it is used so often. Today “we” is on 27th place by frequency among all English words. And what is important – it was the basis of the vocabulary of all people, even the illiterate.

It is also interesting that the context of use of the word has hardly changed. You know for sure that the phrase “we researched” is written in scientific articles, even if the scientist did everything on his own. It’s the same in English. And this “royal we”, as it is also called, has an ancient history.

Initially, the rulers of European states spoke about themselves in the plural. In the Russian language, this feature of the language has been preserved until the 20th century. Here, for example, is the official title of Emperor Nicholas II:

By the grace of God, We, Nicholas II, the Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia, the Tsar of Poland, the Grand Duke of Finland, and so on, and so on and so forth.

In Britain, “royal we” in modern history is most closely associated with Queen Victoria, who in all official speeches referred to herself using the plural.

In scientific articles and journalism, the use of “we” instead of “I” uses the same principles. And this option is also very old. For the first time in English, it is used in Beowulf, one of the oldest written works of English literature that has come down to us.

Even this meaning of the word “we” has been perfectly preserved until the 21st century.

There are also many interesting things about the etymology of this word. In Middle English, it had several forms – blak, black or blake, and in Old English it sounded like blæc. That is, for at least 1500 years it has not changed.

But in Proto-Germanic, the meaning of the word is slightly different – “burnt”. And the proto-Indo-European root bleg actually meant “to burn, to shine.”

From this root, three separate words emerged in English with radically different meanings:

Black – the black
Bleak – pale
Bleach – bleach

Interestingly, in Old English, blæc also symbolized ink. And in general, it is clear what the palette of images was created around in general – a bonfire and fire.

Starting from the Indo-European, the image of the lexeme was tied to fire. In Proto-Germanic it became “burnt” – that is, ashes. In Old English, it began to symbolize black and ink, which were most often made from ash. Very entertaining intricacies and logic of the development of the word.

This lexeme has been studied very deeply. And the interesting thing is that in most Indo-European languages, it practically did not change.

In almost all modern European languages, the word for mother comes precisely from the proto-Indo-European méhtēr.

Image source

English is no exception. It sounded like moder in Middle English, and modor in Old English.

If we take all modern languages ​​that belong to the Indo-European family, then “mother” has changed its meaning least of all. And this has its own logic, because the word “mother” is one of the first, which a child teaches in any language. It is so stable that even the general variability of natural languages ​​over more than two thousand years could not change it.

In English, the word is really very old. Its origin can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic – handuz. But then – nothing.

Researchers do not have a single version of the origin of the word. Perhaps it went to Old Swedish or Gothic, but there are only approximately similar lexemes with a different meaning.

Nevertheless, the word “hand” has not changed at all for fifteen hundred years. And 500, and 1000 years ago, it was written in exactly the same way.

Take, for example, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century. There you can find references to this word:

Original: Do wey youre handes, for youre curteisye!
Modern English: Take away your hands, for your courtesy!
Literal translation into Russian: Get your hands off, be kind!

Original: His owene hand he made laddres thre.
Modern English: With his own hand he made three ladders
Literal translation into Russian: He made three stairs with his own hands

Even in Beowulf, which was written in the 7th-8th centuries, there is “hand” or its derivatives:

Original: wearþ hé Heaþoláfe tó handbonan
Modern English: he was Heatholaf’s slayer by his own hand
Literal translation into Russian: he killed Hesolath with his own hands.

Original: sé þe on handa bær hroden ealowaége
Modern English: he who in his hands bore an ornate ale-cup
Literal translation into Russian: the one in whose hands lies a rich mug of ale

So yes, “hand” in English can really be considered one of the oldest words that have not changed at all for a millennium and a half. But where it came from in English is still a mystery.

Fire has always been important to humans. Therefore, the word fire at all times was included in the active lexicon.

It sounded like fier in Middle English, f староr in Old English. But it is interesting that in the Proto-Indo-European root there was péhwr именно – it was from him that the ancient Greek π пошρ came. Therefore, the words “pyrotechnics” and “fire” are relatives with common roots.

So how did fȳr suddenly appear from péhwr̥ with sound [f]?

The reason is the consonant shift, which is called the Rusk-Grimm law. Yes, the same Grimm who collected folklore with his brother and wrote pretty creepy tales.

In the Proto-Germanic language, the articulation of some sounds began to change, because of which they began to sound a little different.

Therefore, in the Germanic language and everyone who went from it, the deaf [p] turned into a deaf fricative [f]…

What is the reason for such changes is not completely clear. There are several theories. According to one of the most common, Proto-Germanic began to change around the 2nd millennium BC. under the influence of the languages ​​of the peoples conquered by the Germanic tribes. The changes are minimal, but have accumulated over a thousand years, so the shift went unnoticed.


Of course, there are still plenty of old words in English. For several thousand years, the lexemes man and woman, give, ash, hear, flow, pull have undergone minimal changes. Even the numbers one, two and three have changed only outwardly – at the beginning of our era they sounded exactly the same as now.

It is interesting that the words that were included in the active lexicon of absolutely every inhabitant remained unchanged. Competent or not, smart or not so – everyone without exception knew the words “mother”, “hand” or “fire”. And that is why they have practically not changed over many centuries of existence.

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