It’s hard to imagine the world without words. Words are not just the primary way of communication but also sources of entertainment, i.e., books, movies, and songs. There are millions of words and over 6,500 languages spoken worldwide. In fact, language is one of the essential components of our culture. Without language, it’ll be more challenging for humans to communicate, build relationships, and interact with each other.
With the rich languages and growing vocabulary of modern times, have you ever paused and wondered where it all began? Like everything in this world, language has a beginning. Let’s explore the twist and turns of the exciting root of all languages, the very first word that ever existed.
Who invented the first word?
Some historians believe that humans started talking thousands of years ago. However, there is no recorded evidence of this claim. The earliest evidence of a written word is from the 3400 or 3500 BCE during the time of the Sumerians.
The first word’s key contributors (and evolution)
- Homo sapiensSymbolic Thinking
Homo sapiens from 40,000 years ago showed evidence of symbolic thinking. They enjoyed art and music. They even used simple tools. These pieces of evidence prove that Homo sapiens used words to communicate.
- SumeriansSumerian Cuneiform
Honestly, it’s hard to pinpoint the actual inventors of words. But, the earliest known written language was credited to the Sumerians. Archaeologists found clays and tablets with symbols believed to be the first words: god, humans, and earth.
- PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science)Words from 15,000 Years Ago
PNAS made a paper to analyze the languages from Asia and Europe. They aimed to compare the languages and select 200 words with similar meanings and sounds. Then, they determined the roots of the chosen words and trimmed the list down to the words they believed were timeless. They came up with 23 words: thou, worm, not, fire, mother, man, and fire are some examples.
- Bible ScholarsJohn 1:1
Bible scholars also have their take on the first word debate. They argue that the answer is already written in the bible. Specifically, in the book of John 1:1.“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.”
- Roman JakobsonWe All Want Mama
Roman Jakobson, a linguist, studied the origin of the human language and concluded that the first word a human ever spoke was “mama.” He argues that the term “mama” is the nasal sound from babies while they breastfeed. It has evolved through time and was associated with mothers/caregivers.
When was the first word invented?
There are no solid proofs of the first word ever spoken. However, the first recorded written word in history dates back to the Sumerians in 3400 – 3500 BCE.
A brief history of the first word
It’s extremely difficult to trace the origin of the first language. It is more difficult to know what was the very first word to be spoken. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution explained that humans and language evolved almost at the same time. It is difficult because nobody knows if the growth was linear (coming from one place) or scattered (starting in different areas at the same time).
However, linguists, historians, archaeologists, and scholars did their best to develop a timeline to explain the history of the first word.
Language is believed to have started 40,000 years ago during the time of the Homo sapiens. There are unearthed pieces of evidence showing the Homo sapiens’ ability to think symbolically like simple tools, musical instruments, and arts. Symbolic thinking is the ability that sets Homo sapiens apart from other groups. Because of these discoveries, scholars believe that Homo sapiens could communicate with each other through words.
It’s a shame that recording devices were not present in ancient times, so we have no idea what the first spoken word was. However, we do have proof of the first word ever written. It points back to the Sumerian form of writing, Sumerian Cuneiform. Archaeologists unearthed clay tablets with the symbols of God, humans, and earth. Experts recognized these as the first words.
Various universities and institutions were interested in the origin of the first word/s. A group of linguists in partnership with PNAS conducted an interesting study about the languages of Asian and European countries. They cross-examined their languages and selected 200 similar words among them. They came up with 23 words that they believed were relevant and useful 15,000 years ago. Some words from the list are man, mother, fire, not, and worm (this is surprising!).
Roman Jakobson’s paper also claimed that mama (mother) was the first word ever spoken. Following his logic, he argued that aside from being relevant to everyone, primates are inclined to call on their mothers from birth. In addition, the term “mama” is similar to the nasal sound babies produce while breastfeeding. He also cross-examined several languages to support his claim.
Another interesting take on the issue of the first word is from the catholic church. Bible scholars claim that the answer is already presented in the Bible. Their argument is rooted in John 1:1, which reads, “In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” They believe that the first word ever spoken is the word “God” since God is the creator of everything and everyone.
A tremendous number of theories, papers, and research try to explain and guess what the first word was. They all make valid points and have proofs to support their claims. However, nobody can prove what is accurate and what is not. Up to this day, scholars and linguists are still looking for clues that can give them a more precise answer to the origin of the first word.
The first word timeline
- 40,000 years agoAs Old as Humans
Language is believed to be as old as the human species. Homo sapiens displayed symbolic thinking, which is a key requirement for language development.
- 3400 to 3500 BCEThe First Written Word/s
Sumerians are credited for writing the first three words: humans, earth, and God. They wrote it using symbols on clay tablets. These three words represent what was important for Sumerians back then. They value the world where they live, their rulers, families, and most importantly, a supreme being or God.
- 13000 BCThe Oldest Letter
The Sumerians used symbols or drawings in their writing system. The civilizations that followed them used lines and letters. The oldest known letter in the English alphabet is “O.” The letter O came from the Phoenician alphabet in 13000 BC.
- Modern TimesHumans from the Ice Age
Researchers were keen to know how people from thousands of years ago communicated with one another. A particular study came up with a set of words/sounds they believed were used by humans from the Ice Age.
Where was the first word invented?
The first word ever written originated in Sumerians in 3400 – 3500 BCE. They lived in Mesopotamia which is now known as the southern part of Iraq.
The importance of the first word
- It’s a sign of civilization
A civilized group of people can communicate their needs and wants to each other. The first word is one of the humans’ earliest signs of civilization that sets them apart from animals.
- Explains what was important
Many linguists and historians have different theories of the first word. Some say it’s the word “God,” while others believe it is the word “mama.” Whichever is true; it reflects the things that ancient people prioritized.
- It’s a form of art
Words are beautiful. They convey different meanings and allow people to express their feelings. If woven together, words can also create art in the form of books, music, movies, and poetry.
- Key for survival
When we communicate with each other, we build more harmonious relationships. We also learn new things, improve our skills, and adapt to new environments. This is probably the reason why Homo sapiens thrived.
The first word by the numbers
- 5There are 5 theories on the origins of language namely, The Bow-Wow theory of mimicry, the Ding-Dong theory of sound symbolism, the La-la theory of association, the Pooh-Pooh theory of interjections, and the Yo-He-Ho theory of rhythmic sounds.
- 23While it is almost impossible to identify the first word ever spoken, a group of linguist came up with 23 words they believe are the oldest in the English language – thou, I, give, mother, black, bark, ashes, spit, fire, man, flow, hand, hear, that, this, old, ye, pull, not, we, whom, what, and worm.
- 7,100From a single word, language evolved to more than 7,100 beautiful and diverse languages.
- 12Amongst the 7,100 languages around the world, there are 12 famous or most spoken languages. The list was based on the number of active native speakers – English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, and Indonesian.
Five facts about the first word
Language is a complex set of words that has meaning and structure. It can be spoken by millions or spoken by few, but it’ll still be considered a language as long as it has meaning. 8 people talk Busuu, and it is still considered a language.
- French Origin
English is the most spoken language in the world. However, it might surprise you to find out that almost 50 percent of modern English words come from the French language.
- Words for Danger
Many linguists believe that the first word must be used to warn other humans about danger. Caring for other people’s well-being is one of the first signs of civilization.
- No first word
Some linguists claim that it is silly to guess or hypothesize what the first word was. Because for them, there was no first word. In the 5th century, different groups of people gathered around England. Each group is speaking different languages during that time. Since they had to communicate, the language we know of now was gradually formed.
- Dead Language
Languages like greek and Latin are considered dead languages. Dead languages are no longer changing and evolving since nobody is using them anymore. This is why scientists used Latin to give species their scientific names.
FAQs about the first word
- How did words start?
Words started as signs partnered with natural sounds. The hand gestures we use nowadays are biological residues of the first sign language.
- What language did Adam and Eve speak?
According to bible scholars, Adam and Eve spoke the Adamic language during their time in the Garden of Eden.
- What is the first ever swear word?
Fart. As it turns out, fart is an 800-year-old swear word.
- When did humans start talking?
Roughly around the same time of Homo sapiens’ evolution which is 150,000 years ago.
- Do cavemen really grunts a lot?
The grunting is not an accurate description of how cavemen communicated. They actually used proto-language, which is made of simple words and syntax.