What Was the First English Word?
I’m feeling liminal and whimsical. Not an obvious pairing. Unless you feel like teasing out the thread of hardened whimsy that marks most borders. Anyway, here’s what keeps coming. (And this time it’s not a surreal Dutch image. By the way, nobody’s claimed it, but that one appears to have returned to wherever it came from.)
What was the first English word? Who said it? Who heard it? When? What was it understood to mean?
I don’t mean in the sense that responsible historians must answer this question. It’s not the kind of question responsible historians are likely to take up. But if I’m wrong, and there is a respectable academic answer to this, I’d love to know it.
I mean it in the sense that John Ruskin impossibly dated the beginning of the fall of Venice:
I date the commencement of the Fall of Venice from the death of Carlo Zeno, 8th May, 1418; the _visible_ commencement from that of another of her noblest and wisest children, the Doge Tomaso Mocenigo, who expired five years later. — The Stones of Venice (1851)
If that isn’t liminal and (unintentionally) whimsical, I don’t know what is. It may even be accurate. Depends who you ask.
The formation of English was gradual. It evolved without troubling itself to be born. There was no first word. At various times in the 5th century, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other northern Europeans show up in what is now England. They’re speaking various North Sea Germanic dialects that might or might not have been mutually understandable. Some of the original inhabitants of this area spoke Latin, and, because of the Church, the educated classes continued to speak Latin long after the newcomers settled in. Old Norse gets mixed in when the Vikings come to call in the 9th and 10th centuries. Out of this hodgepodge of languages Old English, or rather different forms of Old English, (Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, West Saxon) emerge in various places at various times. Everything is in flux for centuries until – well, there is still no one standard version of English. It’s still in flux. I get that.
So there are no absolute borders here. I get that, too. I’m making one up because I’m a Victorian at heart and I’m obsessed with creating useless categories. So I’m imagining (pretending?) that way back sometime, somebody, or several somebodies, somewhere in the British Isles (let’s make geography a marker, even though the words most likely arrived from elsewhere) was talking to somebody else.
And that person was using a language that, due to the percentage of words and phrases in his speech that will become recognizably used in some version of Old English, one can reasonably say – this person is speaking early early early English, and no longer – I don’t know – speaking Old Frisian or Old Saxon or some other Ingvaeonic language. And maybe that proto proto English only showed up in certain situations – like trade – and this person reverted to speaking the precursor most of the time, but there’s something in his speech, had it been recorded at that moment, that would support us saying, “That’s English! That’s mother!” Right there, hear it? When he yelled at his horse? Or bargained with a Northumbrian merchant? Or complained to his wife? Or got drunk and started a fight?
And of course that speech would have happened at a particular time on a particular day. Seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months before anybody else in the world happened to break into something that is arguably English and no longer a precursor language. Somebody had to do it first.
If such an event did happen it’s lost to us. It probably happened a lot. It’s not linear. I don’t mean one guy spoke English and everybody followed. I mean – wouldn’t you just love to know where the first guy was and what he said when for however long – a minute? 30 seconds? – his language crossed that border?
Such things are sacred. We cannot know them.