Wednesday 14 December 2016

The oldest word in the world

What is the oldest word in the world? 

Tough question. How would you even go about finding this out? 

Well you can collect all the words from all living and dead languages. Analyze them, compare them and you might come up with a list of some root words common to enough distant languages that you can say: "these words are very old". But this is basically where you will hit the dead end. There is no way to progress from here to "this is the oldest word in the world". 

So I decided to take different approach. Instead of looking for the oldest recorded word, I will look at what "word" is and go from there. 

Word can be spoken or written. Written word is encoding of a spoken word using symbols or signs.

A spoken "word" is a sequence of sounds which is associated with some agreed meaning. It is this associated meaning that turns noise into words. You have all probably been in a situation where you were abroad, in a country whose language you didn't understand. If you even bothered listening to the people around you, all you would have heard was incomprehensible noise. And sprinkled here and there were words, parts of the noise that for you had some meaning, because in your own language that particular sequence of sounds had attached meaning. Something like this:


Say this out loud. Can you recognize any of it? This is Serbian. I deliberately removed spacing because when you are listening to foreign language that you don't understand this is how you hear it. The text in quotations means "Good day sir. How much is Coca cola?". How many of you recognized "coca cola" among the noise?


Now that we know what spoken "word" is, we need to look at how words are made. Well they are made by blowing air through our mouth while opening and closing our mouth, changing the position of our tong and squeezing and relaxing our throat and our vocal cords. On top of this we need to listen to the sounds we are making in order to plan and control the process of speaking. So in order to speak properly we need to be able to hear properly. And we have to have all the brain functions that deal with all of the muscular and sensory systems involved in speaking and with translation of ideas into language, well developed and highly tuned. This makes speaking a very very complicated thing indeed. I wrote a big article about language development on my page "Unified languages theory", so if you are interested in things like that you should have a look at it. 

One of the things that we know about language development is that every new born baby has to start from scratch. Every normal human baby is born with a mouth, tongue, throat, vocal cord, ears, brain. But none of the apparatus involved in controlling these parts of the human body is developed at birth. This is why new born babies don't open their mouths to take their first breath and say "Good day sir. Nice to meet you. Stop slapping my bottom..." They open their mouths to take their first breath and howl "aaaaaaaaaaa". You can hear a very good rendition of this sound sequence in this video.  

This sequence of sounds carries a meaning. It means: "I am in distress! Alert! WTF just happened!!??!!". How do we know this? Because this sequence of sounds (vowels) is accompanied by a facial expression which clearly shows distress. The idea is to attract attention of the mother. It is unconscious communication, built into us genetically. We don't have to think about it or plan it. Our emotions are automatically encoded into facial expressions and involuntary sounds. I wrote about these involuntary sounds on my page "Vowels". 

But as we grow up, we continue to use these facial expressions and sounds. And the same sequence of sounds "aaaaaaa" accompanied with the same or similar facial expressions, continues to represent the same idea: "Distress! Alert!". We do this unconsciously when we are afraid, or when we are in pain or when we are grieving.  And consciously when we are shouting to alert other people to something, mostly of incoming scary thing that can cause pain and grieving. Sometimes that scary thing is us and we are alerting others that we can cause them pain and grieving...

So here we have the first sound every baby makes at birth, and it seems that this sound, or sound sequence, carries a meaning. Could this sound sequence be called a word? 

I believe so. Even though the origin of this sound sequence is in unconscious, involuntary sounds of distress, this sound sequence is later consciously used by adult humans to signify distress, alert. So for all intents and purposes this is in fact the oldest word ever uttered by humans, and which has survived til today. 


Not bad for an hour work. :)

I know that some people could say that this is not really a word because it has no consonants. They could also say that a shout is not a word. 

I could argue that there are plenty of single vowels which are considered to be "words". And I could argue that the words are supposed to convey a meaning. And this "shout", conveys more meaning than a lot of big complicated words put into big complicated sentences. 

But I won't argue.


  1. Vey good. I agree that was a word. it clearly communicated a need, and the mother r will respond appropriately.

  2. I am supporter of AAT (Aquatic Ape Theory), which says that humans evolved near water. When attacked by predator, you hit your baby in water (which is safe for us). Baby is in distress, and cries for two reasons. First, it marks its position amongst waves. Second, salty tears shed excess salt.
    The first word. Say to your children to hold breath for one minute. Last 10 seconds you will hear "mmmmmmmmm", as they striggle to hold air. When one minute passes they will exhale air, and you will hear "aaaaaah". When kid goes diving for shellfish, after emerging, you will hear "maaaah". When mother hears this, she will come to her child. Kid learns the trick, and when he wants her mother to come to him, he says "maaaaah". If mother has some other business kid becomes impatient: "maaah" "maaah".

  3. (sh)out/utter/order/word

    Please spell a scream, a yell, a shout, a cry, a howl, a weep, a hum.
    Only then would I accept these utterances as words. A word can be spelled.

    1. When I was kid I used to go to summer camps at sea coast. Those camps would have something like 500 children. Camo area would go inland for something like 500 meters, but all those children congregated on coast, some 5 to 10 meters from sea. There would be playgrounds inland, but nobody cared, children would be on the coast, swimming, diving, jumping into sea, sunbathing, walking along shore, collecting shellfish, playing simple games with little stones. All those kids would be very vocal, they would scream, yell, shout, howl, weep and hum. But, I noticed one thing. When I was going from inland towards the shore, from a distance of something like 200 meters, you would hear the loud noise comming from shore, but you wouldn't hear individual scream, yell, shout, howl. Instead all those sounds would merge into one, and you will clearly hear continuous "aaaaaaaaaaa", no doubt about it.

  4. Somewhat off topic, but I'm curious what you'd think about this article:

    particularly the apparent connections it draws between Egypt and the Caspian Sea ca. 4000 BCE.