A book I’m reading directed me to a research paper called “Explorations in Automated Language Classification” which I didn’t read because I’m not a nerd but I did skim/scan. The book was talking about how language changes over time, which I knew because I’m so smart, but it also learned me that some words are more stable than others because I’m so dumb. Some words lose or change meaning quickly, like the word computer, which meant “A woman who performs calculations” only for a few years before it meant “magic box that makes people angry”.
This was brought up in the context of the plays of Shakespeare. If you read them now someone super smart like me can mostly figure out the meaning but there’s a lot of nuance that is lost and someone dumb like a dumb dummy can’t follow it at all. And then it talked about Beowulf, which is technically written in English but is incomprehensible to even a super smart person like me. But even in Beowulf there are words here and there that you recognize today.
The gist of all this is that the more common a word is the more likely it is to “stick” and the less a word is used the more likely it is to be forgotten or changed. In the paper they categorized the words that are the same now as they were a 1000 years ago (in English) which they assume have a good chance of staying the same for another 1000 years or longer –
Blood, bone, breasts, die, dog, drink, ear, eye, fire, fish, full, hand, hear, horn, knee, leaf, liver, louse, mountain, name, new, night, nose, one, path, person, see, skin, star, stone, sun, tongue, tooth, tree, two, water
There’s probably some kind of writing challenge that can be made out of this list but I’m too cool and lazy to care about it. I just thought it was interesting.
I’m surprised that liver is on the list. I feel like I hardly ever say liver. Maybe that was more important in the last 1000 years when people were butchering animals, although neither “save” nor “get” are on the list so maybe livers were so important you didn’t need to tell someone to get it.
Breasts is on the list of course, but knee is a surprise. Who knew people were so into knees? I hate knees. When summer rolls around and the young people put on their short shorts I hate it. Cover up your knees people. I bet most people in olden times had bad knees, but “hurt” or “pain” isn’t on the list so maybe they just said “knee die”. Or again, maybe everyone knew their knees hurt so it didn’t need to be said.
At first I thought that louse was another outlier but then I remember that until like 1980 everyone was swarming with lice and fleas and parasites so it makes sense.
I find it interesting that people mostly only needed to count to two, and that “zero” or “none” or “nothing” isn’t on the list. I suppose people just shrugged when they didn’t find any livers to eat.
Anyway, I’m going to change my name to Sun-Tongue Tree-Tooth so people in a thousand years will understand.