English language, West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family that is closely related to Frisian, German, and Dutch (in Belgium called Flemish) languages. English originated in England and is the dominant language of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various island nations in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is also an official language of India, the Philippines, Singapore, and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa. But, what was the first English word?
Because language disappears into the air as soon as it is spoken, it can be hard to tell when any particular language began. But if there are artifacts with writing left behind, we can get some idea of its beginnings. The earliest English word is discovered to be recorded in the 1930s during an archaeological dig near Norwich. The word ‘raihan’ was written in an ancient runic script carved on a bone of a deer. But what does it mean?
Languages generally don’t just materialize out of nowhere but evolve from other, already-existing languages. When does Latin officially become French or Spanish or Italian? In the case of English, the question is when does an ancestor Germanic language become English? We still have no proper evidence about it.
The most sensible question for the first English word, maybe, when did a Germanic language first come to the place where English would eventually develop and flourish?
The “raihan” bone was found in a cremation urn in a cemetery site in the village of Caistor St. Edmund. Archeologists now call it the Caistor astragalus (astragalus is an anatomical term for ankle bone), and it’s been dated to the early 5th century. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain is the major linguistic turning point in the history of English. Before the invasions of Anglo-Saxon in 449 A.D., the people there spoke some sort of Celtic language mixed with Latin from the occupying Romans. The Anglo-Saxons brought their Germanic languages, which became dominant in just a few hundred years later across the area and take the form of Old English.
The bone appears to occur in the Germanic language before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. Who made this inscription? It’s still a mystery. But “raihan” is our first physical document of the beginning of English.
However, the meaning of the word remains a bit of a mystery. It could mean ‘Raiha’s’ as in ‘it belongs to Raiha’ or it could be related to the root ‘rei’, which could either mean ‘to cut’ or ‘to color’ among many other assumptions.
What was it for? The urn in which it was found also contains a number of other smaller bones from sheep or goats. Altogether, they form a set of pieces or counters for playing a game. The use of small bones in games is an ancient and widespread practice in history. In fact, the game Jacks was once known as “Knucklebones.”
The roe-deer bone is larger, polished, and etched with a word. Perhaps it was the prize piece in a game, similar to the king in chess. Perhaps the person who fashioned the game pieces just wanted to label the bone with the name of its source. Though we can’t know exactly who wrote the word and why? we do, thanks to the preservation and discovery, know the word.