Practice English Speaking&Listening with: What's the Earliest English Word?

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Welcome to the Endless Knot!

Today were going to ask, “whats the earliest English word?”

Then Ill be asking you for your opinion at the end, so stick around for the poll!

Language change is a bit like boiling the proverbial frogyou dont notice how

much a language has altered until you look back.

Its hard to pick the point when English becameEnglish”.

Broadly speaking, English is the language that grew out of the collection of dialects

spoken by Germanic mercenaries, invaders, and settlers, such as the Angles, Saxons,

and Jutes, who came to Britain in the 5th century.

It has changed a lot since that earliest form, now known as Old English, spoken by the people

known as the Anglo-Saxons, but it is still all considered one language, English.

Of course we cant know what the first spoken word in this language was, so what were

looking for is the earliest surviving written English word.

So, whats the earliest English writing we have?

Its often said that the oldest Old English text to be written down was the Law Code of

King Æthelberht of Kent, composed in the early 7th century, sometime before Æthelberht

died in 616 but after Augustine came to England to become archbishop of Canterbury in 597

and converted Æthelberht to Christianity, making him the first Anglo-Saxon Christian


The first sentence of the document reads: “þis syndon þa domas þe Æðelbirht cyning

asette on Agustinus dægeorThese are the laws which king Æthelberht established

in Augustines day”.

So then is the earliest word ‘þis’?

Well, the problem is that the earliest surviving copy of this law code is a very late Old English

manuscript from the early 12th century.

And who knows how much its changed in the recopying over the years, and if that sentence

was even in the original.

For the earliest Old English text that survives in its original form, not a later copy, we

have to go to an inscription on an artifact.

One such artifact is the Franks Casket, a whalebone chest believed to date from the

early 8th century.

Its richly decorated with both pictures and inscriptions, written mostly in Anglo-Saxon


There isnt really abeginningto the various texts inscribed on the Franks

Casket, but the front panel, which contains pictures of the Germanic legend of Wayland

the Smith and the biblical story of the Adoration of the Magi, has inscribed on it a riddle

about the make-up of the casket itself: “Fisc flodu ahof on fergen-berig, warþ gas-ric

grorn þær he on greut giswomorThe flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff,

the terror-king became sad where he swam on the sand”.

The answer to the riddle is given asHronæs ban”, “whales bone”, and its a

whale to which the first word of the text, “fisc”, is referring.

By the way, the Franks Casket also contains a picture of the brothers Romulus and Remus

being suckled by a she wolf, connected with the legendary foundations of Rome, and an

obscure picture including a horse, which some have identified as a reference to the legendary

foundations of Anglo-Saxon England with the two brothers Hengest (meaningstallion”)

and Horsa (meaninghorse”), the first two of those mercenaries invited to Britain.

And its to that foundation period of Anglo-Saxon England that we turn next.

Because while the Franks Casket contains perhaps the earliest extended text of Old English

literature, there are artifacts from the earlier migration period with shorter inscriptions.

Such as the Undley Bracteate, found in Undley Common, near Lakenheath, Suffolk, which dates

to sometime in the later 5th century, perhaps between 450 and 480.

A bracteate is a coin-like medallion which was apparently worn as jewellery.

The Undley bracteate contains a runic inscription which is the earliest example of the Anglo-Saxon

variety of runes, as opposed to the slightly different Common Germanic Elder Futhark, so

this would therefore be a strong candidate for the earliest English writing.

The inscription is a little hard to interpret, however.

It readsgægogæ mægæ medu”.

The last two words are clear enough, meaningreward for relatives”, presumably referring

to the bracteate itself, similar to the Franks Casket whalebone riddle.

Neither word really makes it to modern English except perhaps the fairly archaic meed, not

the honey wine that the Anglo-Saxons drank, but M-E-E-D meaningreward”.The first

series of characters, however, has sparked much debate.

One possibility is that it represents a war-cry.

There is another artifact, called the Kragehul I lance shaft, which was found on Funen, Denmark,

which also has a runic inscription that includes the similar string of runic characters gagaga.

A war-cry would certainly make sense on a spear shaft.

Another suggestion for the gægogæ of the Undley Bracteate is that it meanshowling

she-wolfin reference to the picture on the bracteate of the she-wolf suckling Romulus

& Remus (just like that picture we saw before on the Franks Casket), so the entire phrase

would then meanthis she-wolf to a kinsman is a reward”.

A third possibility is that gægogæ represents some kind of magical incantation or formula.

Another similar bracteate called the Seeland-II-C bracteate, which was found on Zeeland, Denmark,

has an inscription which meansHariuha I am called: the dangerous knowledgeable one:

I give chance”, and that last phrase, “I give chance or luckis often used to argue

that bracteates are some kind of magical amulets.

So perhaps the Undley Bracteate too is some kind of lucky charm, and gægogæ is our earliest

English wordwe just dont know what it means!

Our next candidate is more understandable.

At Caistor St Edmund in Norfolk, an urn was found containing over thirty astragalus bones,

otherwise known as talus or ankle bones, presumably gaming pieces.

All but one of the bones in the urn are from sheep; that one exception is from a roe deer,

and has inscribed on it the wordraihanmeaningroe” (and in fact we get the

modern English wordroefrom this), so again like the Franks Casket naming its

material, this gaming piece names itself as the one roe bone in the bunch.

The find was dated to ca. 425-475, so possibly earlier than the Undley Bracteate, making

this potentially the earliest inscription found in Anglo-Saxon England.

The catch with this wordraihan”, though, is that its inscribed in runes of the Elder

Futhark variety, from the mainland, rather than Anglo-Saxon runes.

Its believed these game pieces may have been brought over by one of the invading Germanic

warriors coming to Britainso does it count as English?

Oh, and what game exactly were these used to play?

Well, one popular game at the time is now known as knucklebones (though as weve seen,

actually played with ankle bones!) much like modern jacks.

You put one bone on the back of your hand, throw it up in the air and pick up another

from the ground then catch the one you threw up, continuing on like this adding one bone

each time.

So, do you want to place your bet on this word?

Both these inscriptions come from the Anglo-Saxon migration period, when it was said Hengist

and Horsa arrived in England bringing their troop of warriors with them, around the middle

of the 5th century.

For our next candidate for the earliest English word, we turn to an account of that invasion

itselfnot from the Anglo-Saxons, but from the indigenous Britons.

The Celtic British writer Gildas wrote about the fall of Britain to these Germanic invaders,

and in doing so he seems to have preserved a word of these Anglo-Saxons.

Gildas was writing in Latin, but he uses a non-Latin word in his text: “tum erumpens

grex catulorum de cubili leaenae barbarae, tribus, ut lingua eius exprimitur, ‘cyulis’,

nostralongis navibus’” which meansThen a pack of cubs burst forth from the

lair of the barbarian lioness, in threecyulis’, as they call long ships in their language.”

Gildas presumably got this word cyulis meaninglong shipsfrom some Germanic source.

And indeed the word reappears in Old English as ceol in later Old English texts, such as

in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was compiled starting in the late 9th century, recounting

the arrival of Hengest and Horsa: “on þeora dagum gelaðode Wyrtgeorn Angelcin hider,

& hi þa coman on þrim ceolum hider to Brytenemeaningin their days Vortigern invited

the Angle race here and they then came in three ships here to Britain.”

So although the word first occurs in a Latin context, it could be said to be the earliest

recovered word of written Old English.

But speaking of the Angles, what about them and their language?

Well again we can turn to Latin contexts, specifically the ethnographic writings of

the Roman author Tacitus, who way back around the year 98 wrote a book called Germania,

in which he describes the various Germanic tribes that had come into contact with the


One tribe he mentions he called the Anglii, which seems quite plausibly to be the Angles

who three and a half centuries later would invade Britain and give us the modern term


And what does Angle mean?

Well it seems to refer to their homeland, now known as Angeln (in the part of Germany

known as Schleswig-Holstein), which kind of has a hook-like shape.

And thats what the name seems to mean, “fish hook”—remember that fishy whale

on the Franks Casket?

That name Angle is therefore related to the modern word angler, another word for fisherman.

It in fact goes back to an Indo-European root which meansto bendand gives us the

other word angle, as in a corner, through Latin, as well as the word anklewhich by

the way means that that previous possible ealiest English wordroeis written

on an ankle orEnglishbone!

As a name, in fact, its always been ripe for word play: Pope Gregory the Great, who

sent Augustine to Canterbury to become archbishop and convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity,

was inspired to do so when he saw a couple of fair-haired and pale-skinned Anglo-Saxon

boys for sale in the slave market in Rome, and upon hearing they were Angles punned that

they werenon Angli, sed angeli”, “not Angles, but Angels”.

And when he heard that they were from the Northumbrian kingdom of Deira he said that

they should be savedde ira”, “from the wrath”.

And finally, on learning that the king of that land was named Ælla, he simply replied


Turns out Holy Father jokes are even worse than Dad jokes!

So perhaps in a senseEnglishitself is the earliestEnglishword, at least

in the form Anglii, found in a Latin textthough one whose earliest surviving manuscript dates

from the 15th century, well after the Anglo-Saxon period.

But if we accept it anyway, the irony is that it predates the English language itself!

So what do you think should count as the earliest English word?

The Laws of Æthelberht and its opening word ‘þis’?

The Franks Casket with its first word fisc?

The Undley Bracteate, with its possibly magicalgægogæ”?

The Caistor-by-Norwich gaming piece withraihanon it?

Thecyulisthat the Anglo-Saxons used to come to Britain?

Vote now in the poll and comment to let me know the reason for your choice!

Or, if you think none of those is right, and its actually the word AngliiEnglishitself,

you can say so in the comments, since the poll only allows 5 choices!

Thanks for watching!

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