The Lifespan of Words in English

The ICAL TEFL Blog

Man with a lifespan chart.Did you know that even words have a life span? This ranges from 1,000 years to 20,000 years.

A word like “throw” is expected to have a lifespan of about 1,000 years, while words like “I” and “who” are likely to reach the 20,000 year mark.

Until recently the life span of a word was known to be around 9,000 years.

In May 2013 researchers from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom announced that they had discovered 23 words which were 15,000 years old.

Language is a living entity in constant evolution. Words appear and disappear daily, with new words being created every 98 minutes on average.

Some dialects become endangered and some get totally lost. Languages like the Tibeto-Burman Koro, in northeastern India, are yet to be fully recorded.

But even an ever-changing entity has a core. Reading researchers identified this core in 23 words which are simple, almost basic, yet descriptive and able to suggest abstract relations.

They are: thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm.

Several of these words like I, thou, we, ye are to do with engaging directly with others. This suggests that, even 15,000 years ago, we were already using language for negotiation and building relationships. Indicative of our ancestors’ ability to assign abstract concepts to words is perhaps the word ‘spit’ which not only indicates the physical action of getting rid of something unpleasant or dangerous to our health, but it is also used to show disapproval and disgust.

The most puzzling is perhaps the word ‘worm’. However if we think of where we come from and where our mortal remains will end up (“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) then even ‘worm’ makes sense.

Image © jurvetson

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