Not a lot of things last over a thousand years; even fewer last over 10,000.
Yet a British research team has put together a list of what they called "ultraconserved words," or words that have remained basically unchanged for a stunning 15,000 years.
The researchers say this is because they all originate from the same ancient mother tongue -- a language used toward the end of the last ice age. That language tumbled from its tower of Babel to become seven language families, which all sound like they're out of Game of Thrones: Altaic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Dravidian, Inuit-Yupik, Indo-European, Kartvelian, and Uralic.
The 700 modern languages used by more than half of earth's population descend from those seven original families. Researchers scanned them for cognates: words that sound and mean the same things in different languages, like "father" -- padre, pere, pater, pitar, etc. From those, they put together proto-words, or what they believed were the cognates' ancestral form.
Ultimately, they found 23 words shared by at least four of the seven language families, making them the oldest and longest-lasting words in English. Here they are in all their ancient -- and modern -- glory:
The singular form of "you," this is the only word that all seven language families share in some form. As soon as language evolved, we would have needed to identify each other, and specifically to refer to the person to whom we were speaking.
Similarly, you'd need to talk about yourself. Plus, what's the use of language if not to talk about yourself?
The last cry of most soldiers dying on the battlefield is "Mom," so it's no wonder that it's a primal word. It's also an interesting non-pair on the list: "mother" makes it, but "father" doesn't.
Human survival has always been predicated on our ability to cooperate. Teamwork in early civilizations wasn't a nice-to-have -- you died without it. "I was really delighted to see 'to give' there," study head Mark Pagel said. "Human society is characterized by a degree of cooperation and reciprocity that you simply don't see in any other animal. Verbs tend to change fairly quickly, but that one hasn't."
As in from a tree, not a dog. Anthropologists suggest this was a particularly important element of early civilizations because it was used to make baskets, rope, and, when boiled in water, medicine. In fact, aspirin was originally willow bark tea.
Likely because in its original form, it helped early humans distinguish the light of day from the black of night. Another non-pair: "black" makes the list but "white" doesn't.
Light, warmth, security, a way to cook, a way to keep the wolves away. For a long time (and for many, to this day), fire was the greatest tool for survival. It was the best way to keep the "black" at bay.
Makes sense, given how critical fire was.
What happens when you try to eat ashes.
The fact that "woman" doesn't make the list gives one pause, and may point to the linguistic reality of the patriarchy that has ruled much of the planet for thousands of years.
After our brains, arguably the most important body part for a human being, especially with its accompanying opposable thumbs.
There were all kinds of things we needed to hear: the approaching footsteps of a predator; the sound of prey fleeing; the sound of a baby's cries.
Unclear why this was so foundational, but perhaps it had to do with another fundamental element required for survival: water.
Wisdom is essential when it comes to survival. The old people in a tribe were respected and listened to, for the simple fact that they had seen more and therefore knew more. Our modern culture would do well to reinstate this kind of respect.
Probably because you'd need to be able to specify that you meant this rock.
Not that rock.
The list of things you needed to pull was endless: wood, animals, stones, etc. Combine it with the last one for a full sentence: "Pull that."
Possibly the most random word on the list.
This is now "your" in modern English. A useful word when asking about things around camp: "Ye worms?"
"Not ye worms?"
"We need worms."
"Who can find worms?"
Because even 15,000 years ago, when you couldn't hear what your brother had just said about worms but didn't want to get up from the basket you were weaving, you could always shout, "WHAT?"
"The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself." - Derek Walcott