The World Without Words

History of words 1

Whether you live in London or Singapore, Manila or Cape Town, and whether you’re aged 4, 104, or somewhere in between, there is something which unites you with all 7.7 billion citizens of this planet.




The world’s unsung hero for 15,000 years

We might write them, read them, sign them or speak them, but they are, as Tom Stoppard once put it, ‘all we have to go on’.  Without them, it’s fair to say the world would look quite different, and I don’t think it’s a gross assumption to assume civilisation would have developed at a far slower rate.  After all, how would we connect, build, share and grow? Our lives are built on the ability to communicate with others, and even those who initially share no common language eventually develop a basic list of words through which to converse.


All this we know, and yet we also know that once upon a time words as we know them did not exist.


The most commonly used sounds

Without time travel, we will never know for sure what the first word was or how it came into being, and, at best, we can only make presumptions based on our knowledge of the earliest written languages.  However, researchers at the University of Reading recently did a study that analysed words from seven language families in Eurasia and identified which were the most commonly used sounds associated with specific meanings.  In doing so, they were able to identify 23 words that are statistically most likely to have developed first.  Unsurprisingly, a lot of these words were pronouns, such as thou, I, and mother, but there were also a few unexpected inclusions like worm and the verb to spit.  


Exactly why early humans were spitting on worms we may never know, but the rest of the list certainly goes to show that, at the heart of it, words developed to express thoughts our ancestors wished to share.


15,000 years later, this, at least, has not changed.  We may have moved beyond the basics of fire and ash, but words such as hir and zir, both gender-neutral pronouns which were added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year, show that words are far more than just tools to communicate.  They are how we define ourselves and how we express ourselves. A millennia and a half later, they are still the best way we have to connect with the other 7.7 billion humans we live alongside.

Blog written by Transcriber Lydia

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