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What was the 1st English word?

Determining the first word in the English language is a difficult task, as the language has evolved over centuries with influences from many other languages. However, through historical linguistics research, scholars have theories on what some of the earliest recognizable English words likely were. Though we may never know for certain, exploring the origins and development of English can provide fascinating insights into the foundations of the language we speak today.

The Origins of English

English has its earliest beginnings in the 5th century CE with tribes from northern Germany and southern Denmark who came to live in Britain. These tribes, known as the Anglo-Saxons, spoke a language known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which was a Germanic language related to modern Frisian, Dutch and German.

Old English was initially a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon settlers. Over the centuries, the language evolved into four main regional dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish. By the 9th century, West Saxon had become the dominant literary standard.

Old English differed considerably from Modern English in both grammar and vocabulary. It was a highly inflected language, relying on word endings rather than word order to convey meaning. The vocabulary contained many words borrowed from Latin during the 600 years of Roman presence in Britain before the Anglo-Saxon migrations.

Candidates for the First English Word

Scholars have proposed several possibilities for what may have been the very first English word ever spoken or written:

  • Hwæt – This word functioned as an attention-getter, similar to “Lo!” or “Hark!” It was commonly used at the opening of Old English epic poems such as Beowulf.
  • God – Referring to the Christian deity, this word dates back to the earliest Old English writing. Cædmon’s Hymn from around 658-680 AD contains the earliest known written record of the word “God” in English.
  • Ic/Ich – Meaning “I” or “me,” this was one of the most basic and common words in Old English. The first person pronoun would likely have been an elemental word in early vocabulary.
  • No – This simple negation is found in Old English writings and may have been an early frequently uttered term.
  • The – This definitive article is another elementary building block that could have been ubiquitous in primitive Old English speech and writing.

While we have examples of these words in preserved Old English texts, it’s impossible to say conclusively which one was coined first. However, these words all represent likely contenders for some of the very earliest that entered the English vocabulary.

More Early English Words

In addition to the candidates proposed above, other primitive, basic words that developed in early Old English include:

  • Pronouns like ic/ich (“I/me”), me (“me”), he (“he”), hi (“she/they”)
  • Prepositions such as on (“on”), of (“of”), to (“to”), in (“in”)
  • Verbs like beon (“be”), habban (“have”), willan (“will”), don (“do”)
  • Nouns like mann (“man”), wif (“woman”), cild (“child”), hus (“house”)
  • Adjectives including god (“good”), eald (“old”) and mikel (“much/many”)

By the year 700, there were likely several hundred basic Old English words in use by Anglo-Saxons in Britain. Most vocabulary was derived from Anglo-Saxon/Germanic roots, though a number of Latin borrowings existed.

The Lord’s Prayer in Old English

The Lord’s Prayer, one of the most well-known biblical passages, provides a snapshot of Old English vocabulary and grammar from around 650-750 AD. Below is an excerpt:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
Si þin nama gehalgod.

To becume þin rice,
gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.

Even without translation, we can see glimpses of some familiar words. “On” and “heofonum” (“in” and “heaven”) had clearly entered the Old English lexicon by this time. While the grammar is foreign to modern English, one can pick out a few noun and verb endings, like “nama” (“name”) and “gehalgod” (“hallowed”).

The Evolution of English

Over the next 600 years, Old English continued evolving through the influence of Norse settlers in England and Norman invaders from France. By Chaucer’s time in the late 1300s, what we recognize as Middle English had emerged. Here is the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

While still difficult for modern readers, the vocabulary and grammar had shifted noticeably. By Shakespeare’s era around 1500, the language was edging closer to its contemporary form. Consider this excerpt from Hamlet:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?

Apart from a few archaic terms like “tis,” the language is now readily understandable to us. As English spread across the world through colonialism over the next several centuries, modern English fully emerged.


Pinpointing the precise first word ever uttered in English is impossible. However, historical linguistic studies allow us to trace the language back to its earliest roots. Old English terms like “God,” “ic,” “no,” and “the” may represent some of the primitive foundations of the language we still use today. Through time and contact with other cultures, English developed into the rich, complex and expressive language that now dominates much of the world. Exploring the origins of our words gives us a window into the long evolution of this language.