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

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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