How old are certain words?

Researchers at Reading University have built a mod­el of how word use has changed over the last forty thou­sand years. Mark Pagel, the bio­lo­gist behind the mod­el, says:

When we speak to each oth­er we’re play­ing this massive game of Chinese whis­pers.

The BBC report goes on:

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, long with the words “two”, “three”, and “five”. The word “one” is only slightly young­er.

Fascinating stuff. I have some reser­va­tions about the assump­tions made by the mod­el, but it’s cer­tainly the case that words with the highest fre­quency are those most irreg­u­lar (i.e. are the least sub­ject­ive to reg­u­lar­ising forces). That’s why the verb ‘to be’ in English can get so crazy in its tenses, from ‘am’ to ‘was’. A word can only keep that kind of unique­ness if it’s being spoken often. Low fre­quency irreg­u­lars tend to die out.

Thanks to Katharine Fletcher for the heads-up.

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

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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