What Was the First Word Ever?

Written by Emilio Brown
Published: February 3, 2023
© maradon 333/Shutterstock.com
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Every species in the world has created some way to communicate with each other. Humans are the only type of being on earth capable of spoken language. Since the existence of humans, we have found ways to communicate, whether through movement sounds or even drawings.

Communication is essential to the survival and growth of the human species, and spoken language allowed us to express emotions and ideas effectively. As mankind evolved over the centuries, so did their languages. But where did it all start? What was the first word ever?

The Oldest Word in the World

It is believed the first spoken word was “Aa,” which meant hey. “Aa” is thought to have first been spoken by an australopithecine in Ethiopia over a million years ago. While the first spoken word was most likely “Aa” or some sort of other warning call or greeting, it can be argued that these sounds weren’t necessarily words.

To pinpoint the oldest word ever, researchers at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom created a statistical model to study words that sounded similar and meant the same thing across different languages. They used this model to look at the frequency of these words across several of the oldest language groups. What came from this study is the 23 words that are believed to be over 15,000 years old, dating back to the end of the last ice age.

The words on the following list are found in at least four of the oldest languages leading researchers to believe they all came from a single Eurasiatic language. While it is not certain which word was the first word, here is the list of what is believed to be the first 23 words in English and other languages:

  • thou 
  • not 
  • that 
  • we 
  • this 
  • what 
  • man/male 
  • mother
  • ye 
  • old 
  • hand 
  • fire 
  • To hear 
  • To pull 
  • Black  
  • To flow
  • worm 
  • bark 
  • ashes 
  • To spit 

The Oldest Languages in the World

Ancient carvings at Baku Ateshgah (Fire Temple of Baku), Azerbaijan
While being one of the oldest languages, Sanskrit is still used today.

©Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock.com

It is very hard to identify the oldest languages because many ancient languages died and were lost in history. In the linguistic community, there was debate as to whether the first spoken language was Tamil or Sanskrit. At first, it was believed Sanskrit was the oldest spoken language, but recent evidence suggests Tamil dates back even further than Sanskrit. Tamil influenced other languages like Latin and Greek, suggesting it might be the mother of all languages.  

The oldest written languages were discovered in clay tablets dating back 6,000 years. On these tablets were Hittite, Babylonian, and Sumerian written languages. Many of the oldest languages known to man are extinct, while some are still spoken today. 

These are the oldest languages that are now extinct include:

  • Hurrian
  • Palaic
  • Egyptian
  • Akkadian
  • Elamite
  • Hittite
  • Mycenaean Greek

These are the oldest languages that are still spoken today:

  • Sanskrit
  • Greek
  • Coptic Egyptian
  • Hebrew
  • Chinese
  • Aramaic
  • Arabic
  • Persian (Farsi)
  • Tamil
  • Irish Gaelic

First Forms of Communication

Since man appeared on earth, there has always been some sort of communication used. However, the first methods consisted of disorganized movements or noises that could have had various meanings for each human. Only around three million years after mankind began to exist did the first intentional form of communication begin to appear. 

Primitive Art

Cave painting
Cave paintings are the first known form of communication between humans.

©maradon 333/Shutterstock.com

Around 30,000 B.C.E., the first known primitive communication began to take form. Cave paintings are the first known intentionally manufactured form of communication between humans. They were first used by a species of man known as homo sapiens that came to exist around 130,000 B.C.E.

Homo sapiens used mixtures of fruits, berries, colored minerals, or animal blood to paint on cave walls. These paintings most often depicted animals which some scholars believe were used to identify which animals were safe to eat. Even today, we still find new information about how cave paintings were used and their meaning.

Music, Dance, and Smoke Signals. 

Before there were books, many civilizations used music and dance to pass down stories. Music wasn’t just used for telling stories, though. Drums were often used to notify neighboring tribes of events or concerns they thought should be shared. Different drum patterns meant different things, similar to how morse code is used. Like the drums, smoke signals were also used to try and signal other tribes. However, both of these forms of communication were not preferable because they could easily catch the attention of enemy tribes or predatory animals. 

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Cave painting
Learn about the first word ever and other interesting facts about language, communication, and how it evolved over time.
© maradon 333/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Spiders, snakes, and lizards are my favorite types of animals, and I enjoy keeping some species as pets. I love learning about the various wonders nature has to offer and have been a writer for 5 years. In my spare time, you can find me getting out into nature.

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