World's oldest words

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by S.A.M., Mar 6, 2009.

  1. Enmos Valued Senior Member

    The first lie

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  3. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    The 1st words were "Oh god! Oh god! OH GOD!!!"
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  5. takandjive Killer Queen Registered Senior Member

    Please. Andrew Dice Clay is no more harmful or interesting than if you took your grandmother (the one that doesn't speak English), taught her to swear phonetically, and put her on television. He's not the new Lenny Bruce; I am. (Thanks, KITH!)
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Historically, we can't put too much stock in writing as a factor in the development of language. The technology of writing is no more than 5,000 years old and was only invented within civilizations. (And only five of the six, Inca civilization didn't get that far before the Christians destroyed it). So languages were quite well-developed and already in forms very close to the ones we know today by the time they were written down; and not all of them have yet been written down.

    Furthermore, literacy was only a luxury for the powerful before the invention of the printing press a mere 570 years ago. 99.99... I don't know how many nines percent of the population could not read so written words had no impact on their development of their language.

    Of course that's not true today. "From A to Z," "for every epsilon there is a delta," "the A list," "C cup," "the N-word," our vernacular is peppered with expressions derived from writing and the alphabet. "Mind your P's and Q's" is (arguably) from the occupation of printing itself. (It's easy to grab the wrong one in lower case when they're backwards on moveable type.)

    And quite a few of our modern words appeared in writing first: our acronyms. Radar (radio detection and ranging), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), modem (modulator-demodulator), snafu (situation normal: all f***ed up).

    Then there are backronyms. We've become so accustomed to words being formed out of the first letters of a string of words, that we assume this is the case even when it's not. "Port Out, Starboard Home," "Worthy Oriental Gentleman," "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge"... these are not acronyms but the notion that they are just won't die.
  8. John99 Banned Banned

    the first words started out as utterances and then once the initial ground work was laid out the practical terms came into use.


  9. John99 Banned Banned

    to add to that, most likely from necessity.

    for example: smashing finger with rock - ouch or ow.
  10. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Not very likely that nouns would precede verbs as if you cannot say anything about a , rock or tree, knowing a name for it has no utility, with few exceptions like a word for water, which when used alone is not really a noun, but a request help or action (give me a drink) – I.e. more a verb command or request than a noun. There is no utility in nouns like name for a river or lake or tree unless you can also say things like “go to ...” "meet {me} at ...."

    The thread is about the oldest words*, not the first used words, but if you want my guess on the first used words it would be, I think mainly verbs, especially command verbs like words for "come" "stop" "be still" "hide" “run” “give {me}” “help {me}” etc.

    Certain apes have words to describe dangers, (or at least to command best actions). I.e. the cry / utterance/ word for an air born threat, like an Eagle that may steal a baby, is very well differentiated from the cry / utterance/ two words that warms of a ground threat (one is for a carnivore, like a tiger, and the other for a snake.) There are other words that expression emotions, but these perhaps are not as arbitrary as these three warning words - may be too instinctual to qualify as words. Real words have an arbitary connection to their meaning. Apes from another forest do not respond appropriately to recorded play back of the words for carnivore threat etc. That clearly makes this cry / utterance/ a "word."
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 16, 2009
  11. Archie Registered Senior Member

    Other posters have the basics...

    I think the word "Momma" or "Mama" predated the word "No".

    It was only after the child was old enough to start causing trouble that "Momma" invented the world "no" to deal with junior. Shortly after that, she started telling "Daddy" "no" as well. This also pressed the development of the first complete sentence: "Not tonight, I have a headache."
  12. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    I think the ape-language kind of disagrees with your assertion. Words like "Eagle!" or, for humans, "Saber-tooth tiger!" may have been a lot more likely at first. And those are nouns, we're just able to use nouns as commands in a certain way. If nothing else, they're probably not definable as verbs because they don't necessarily signify one precise response.
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    You folks are stuck in the the thought patterns of the Indo-European language family. Not all languages are organized into paradigms that have the same parts of speech. Chinese has only nouns and verbs: no adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, etc. I'm sure somewhere out there is a language that has no nouns, or no verbs, or maybe neither.

    If you're convinced that a language can't work without nouns and verbs, that just shows you how much your thought processes are shaped by the language in which you think.

    This is why it's so important for everyone to study at least one language besides the one their parents taught them. It provides you with two different ways of thinking, so you can reality-test your own ideas. Even related languages like English and Russian can give you some surprising insights into your own assumptions.
  14. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Fraggle, that was kind of my point. Although maybe I didn't make it very clear. I don't think something easily identifiable as a definite-noun or a definite-verb in it's original language would have been the first words. Though I would think that the translation into English (or Chinese) would be a modern-day noun. But that speaks more to the process of translation.

    The first words were probably, like with the apes, warning-nouns. Things that correspond to modern "Tiger!" or "Massive Falling Rock!"

    They would be prompts. But they also would likely have been rather short, and translated into English as nouns. But as you said, that speaks more to how we identify nouns in English and how we use them.

    By the way, what do you mean Chinese has no conjunctions?

    My Beijing-university grammar textbook defines these as conjunctions, yet states that they are derived from ancient Chinese verbs and nouns. The language in it's most original form may have had no conjunctions, but modern Chinese uses certain words in precisely the same way we use conjunctions, for precisely the same role, and the Chinese themselves define them as conjunctions. So I'm not sure what you mean.
  15. Xylene Valued Senior Member

    'I've got a headache'--possibly the oldest phrase.

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    But seriously--words tend to retain their form over time, but they have their useage and meaning changed.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2009
  16. Spectrum Registered Senior Member

  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Or to the mind-set of the translator. He has to translate the language units of the source language (words or morphemes and morpheme-compunds in a language like Chinese--and possibly Finnish--that doesn't make a clear distinction between those and words) into the language units of the target language.
    Since there are no punctuation marks in speech, we could just as easily render those as warning-verbs: "Run away," "Step out of the path." After all, isn't it a little more important to tell your pack-mate that he should run, than to bother explaining precisely what it is he's running from?

    "Oh yummy, it must be lunchtime and you're serving my favorite meat!"
    My vocabulary of written Chinese is too limited to recognize any of those words. If one of them is gen, which is customarily translated as "and" or "with," it means "join" and functions in the same way as other verbs. Wo gen ni qu, "I join you go." Word order as always carries much of the meaning, in this case making it clear that first I join you, then I go, so logically we must be going together.

    The same is true of words that are customarily translated as prepositions. Gou zai jia li, not "(the) dog is-located in (the) house," but scrupulously following the original word order, "Dog occupy house('s) interior." In this case the word we casually regard as a preposition is actually a noun. Others, such as dao for "to" and cong for "from" are actually verbs. And of course the words we usually translate as adjectives are "stative verbs." Bai means "to be white," not "white." Bai niao chang ge is not "(the) white bird sing(s) (a) song," but "being-white bird sing song." The rigid word order expresses the verb-noun relationship that we use the -ing inflection for.
    The Chinese are happy to adopt our paradigms in order to assimilate the vast quantity of scholarship we produced since the Enlightenment. Don't forget that for centuries English schoolchildren had to learn to decline nouns in five cases in English, because English textbooks were translations of Latin textbooks.
    • Nominative: the boy
    • Genitive: the boy's
    • Dative: (to) the boy
    • Accusative: the boy
    • Vocative: O boy!
    Every time I see that I can't help shouting the vocative case out loud as my opinion of the phenomenon. Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the Chinese are doing.

    Forgive me if my transliterations are off, I learned the Yale system first and sometimes it creeps in when I write Pin-yin.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2009

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