By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re going to ask, “what’s the earliest English word?” Then I’ll be asking you for your opinion at the end, so stick around for the poll!
Language change is a bit like boiling the proverbial frog — you don’t notice how much a language has altered until you look back. It’s hard to pick the point when English became “English”. Broadly speaking, English is the language that grew out of the collection of dialects spoken by Germanic mercenaries, invaders, and settlers, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who came to Britain in the 5th century. It has changed a lot since that earliest form, now known as Old English, spoken by the people known as the Anglo-Saxons, but it is still all considered one language, English. Of course we can’t know what the first spoken word in this language was, so what we’re looking for is the earliest surviving written English word. So, what’s the earliest English writing we have?
It’s often said that the oldest Old English text to be written down was the Law Code of King Æthelberht of Kent, composed in the early 7th century, sometime before Æthelberht died in 616 but after Augustine came to England to become archbishop of Canterbury in 597 and converted Æthelberht to Christianity, making him the first Anglo-Saxon Christian king. The first sentence of the document reads: “þis syndon þa domas þe Æðelbirht cyning asette on Agustinus dæge” or “These are the laws which king Æthelberht established in Augustine’s day”. So then is the earliest word ‘þis’? Well, the problem is that the earliest surviving copy of this law code is a very late Old English manuscript from the early 12th century. And who knows how much it’s changed in the recopying over the years, and if that sentence was even in the original.
For the earliest Old English text that survives in its original form, not a later copy, we have to go to an inscription on an artifact. One such artifact is the Franks Casket, a whalebone chest believed to date from the early 8th century. It’s richly decorated with both pictures and inscriptions, written mostly in Anglo-Saxon runes. There isn’t really a “beginning” to the various texts inscribed on the Frank’s Casket, but the front panel, which contains pictures of the Germanic legend of Wayland the Smith and the biblical story of the Adoration of the Magi, has inscribed on it a riddle about the make-up of the casket itself: “Fisc flodu ahof on fergen-berig, warþ gas-ric grorn þær he on greut giswom” or “The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff, the terror-king became sad where he swam on the sand”. The answer to the riddle is given as “Hronæs ban”, “whale’s bone”, and it’s a whale to which the first word of the text, “fisc”, is referring. By the way, the Franks Casket also contains a picture of the brothers Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she wolf, connected with the legendary foundations of Rome, and an obscure picture including a horse, which some have identified as a reference to the legendary foundations of Anglo-Saxon England with the two brothers Hengest (meaning “stallion”) and Horsa (meaning “horse”), the first two of those mercenaries invited to Britain. And it’s to that foundation period of Anglo-Saxon England that we turn next.
Because while the Franks Casket contains perhaps the earliest extended text of Old English literature, there are artifacts from the earlier migration period with shorter inscriptions. Such as the Undley Bracteate, found in Undley Common, near Lakenheath, Suffolk, which dates to sometime in the later 5th century, perhaps between 450 and 480. A bracteate is a coin-like medallion which was apparently worn as jewellery. The Undley bracteate contains a runic inscription which is the earliest example of the Anglo-Saxon variety of runes, as opposed to the slightly different Common Germanic Elder Futhark, so this would therefore be a strong candidate for the earliest English writing. The inscription is a little hard to interpret, however. It reads “gægogæ mægæ medu”. The last two words are clear enough, meaning “reward for relatives”, presumably referring to the bracteate itself, similar to the Franks Casket whalebone riddle. Neither word really makes it to modern English except perhaps the fairly archaic meed, not the honey wine that the Anglo-Saxons drank, but M-E-E-D meaning “reward”.The first series of characters, however, has sparked much debate. One possibility is that it represents a war-cry. There is another artifact, called the Kragehul I lance shaft, which was found on Funen, Denmark, which also has a runic inscription that includes the similar string of runic characters gagaga. A war-cry would certainly make sense on a spear shaft. Another suggestion for the gægogæ of the Undley Bracteate is that it means “howling she-wolf” in reference to the picture on the bracteate of the she-wolf suckling Romulus & Remus (just like that picture we saw before on the Franks Casket), so the entire phrase would then mean “this she-wolf to a kinsman is a reward”. A third possibility is that gægogæ represents some kind of magical incantation or formula. Another similar bracteate called the Seeland-II-C bracteate, which was found on Zeeland, Denmark, has an inscription which means “Hariuha I am called: the dangerous knowledgeable one: I give chance”, and that last phrase, “I give chance or luck” is often used to argue that bracteates are some kind of magical amulets. So perhaps the Undley Bracteate too is some kind of lucky charm, and gægogæ is our earliest English word—we just don’t know what it means!
Our next candidate is more understandable. At Caistor St Edmund in Norfolk, an urn was found containing over thirty astragalus bones, otherwise known as talus or ankle bones, presumably gaming pieces. All but one of the bones in the urn are from sheep; that one exception is from a roe deer, and has inscribed on it the word “raihan” meaning “roe” (and in fact we get the modern English word “roe” from this), so again like the Franks Casket naming its material, this gaming piece names itself as the one roe bone in the bunch. The find was dated to ca. 425-475, so possibly earlier than the Undley Bracteate, making this potentially the earliest inscription found in Anglo-Saxon England. The catch with this word “raihan”, though, is that it’s inscribed in runes of the Elder Futhark variety, from the mainland, rather than Anglo-Saxon runes. It’s believed these game pieces may have been brought over by one of the invading Germanic warriors coming to Britain—so does it count as English?
Oh, and what game exactly were these used to play? Well, one popular game at the time is now known as knucklebones (though as we’ve seen, actually played with ankle bones!) much like modern jacks. You put one bone on the back of your hand, throw it up in the air and pick up another from the ground then catch the one you threw up, continuing on like this adding one bone each time. So, do you want to place your bet on this word?
Both these inscriptions come from the Anglo-Saxon migration period, when it was said Hengist and Horsa arrived in England bringing their troop of warriors with them, around the middle of the 5th century. For our next candidate for the earliest English word, we turn to an account of that invasion itself—not from the Anglo-Saxons, but from the indigenous Britons. The Celtic British writer Gildas wrote about the fall of Britain to these Germanic invaders, and in doing so he seems to have preserved a word of these Anglo-Saxons. Gildas was writing in Latin, but he uses a non-Latin word in his text: “tum erumpens grex catulorum de cubili leaenae barbarae, tribus, ut lingua eius exprimitur, ‘cyulis’, nostra ‘longis navibus’” which means “Then a pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, in three ‘cyulis’, as they call long ships in their language.” Gildas presumably got this word cyulis meaning “long ships” from some Germanic source. And indeed the word reappears in Old English as ceol in later Old English texts, such as in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was compiled starting in the late 9th century, recounting the arrival of Hengest and Horsa: “on þeora dagum gelaðode Wyrtgeorn Angelcin hider, & hi þa coman on þrim ceolum hider to Brytene” meaning “in their days Vortigern invited the Angle race here and they then came in three ships here to Britain.” So although the word first occurs in a Latin context, it could be said to be the earliest recovered word of written Old English.
But speaking of the Angles, what about them and their language? Well again we can turn to Latin contexts, specifically the ethnographic writings of the Roman author Tacitus, who way back around the year 98 wrote a book called Germania, in which he describes the various Germanic tribes that had come into contact with the Romans. One tribe he mentions he called the Anglii, which seems quite plausibly to be the Angles who three and a half centuries later would invade Britain and give us the modern term English. And what does Angle mean? Well it seems to refer to their homeland, now known as Angeln (in the part of Germany known as Schleswig-Holstein), which kind of has a hook-like shape. And that’s what the name seems to mean, “fish hook”—remember that fishy whale on the Franks Casket? That name Angle is therefore related to the modern word angler, another word for fisherman. It in fact goes back to an Indo-European root which means “to bend” and gives us the other word angle, as in a corner, through Latin, as well as the word ankle—which by the way means that that previous possible ealiest English word “roe” is written on an ankle or “English” bone! As a name, in fact, it’s always been ripe for word play: Pope Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine to Canterbury to become archbishop and convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, was inspired to do so when he saw a couple of fair-haired and pale-skinned Anglo-Saxon boys for sale in the slave market in Rome, and upon hearing they were Angles punned that they were “non Angli, sed angeli”, “not Angles, but Angels”. And when he heard that they were from the Northumbrian kingdom of Deira he said that they should be saved “de ira”, “from the wrath”. And finally, on learning that the king of that land was named Ælla, he simply replied “Alleluia!”. Turns out Holy Father jokes are even worse than Dad jokes!
So perhaps in a sense ‘English’ itself is the earliest ‘English’ word, at least in the form Anglii, found in a Latin text—though one whose earliest surviving manuscript dates from the 15th century, well after the Anglo-Saxon period. But if we accept it anyway, the irony is that it predates the English language itself!
So what do you think should count as the earliest English word? The Laws of Æthelberht and its opening word ‘þis’? The Franks Casket with its first word fisc? The Undley Bracteate, with its possibly magical “gægogæ”? The Caistor-by-Norwich gaming piece with ‘raihan’on it? The ‘cyulis’ that the Anglo-Saxons used to come to Britain? Vote now in the poll and comment to let me know the reason for your choice! Or, if you think none of those is right, and it’s actually the word Anglii —English—itself, you can say so in the comments, since the poll only allows 5 choices!
Thanks for watching! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe to this channel or share it. And check out our Patreon, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net