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The strange history of the English language

Linguist David Crystal, author of "The Story of English in 100 Words," analyzes vocabulary from "shellacking" to "Twittersphere."

By Randy Dotinga / May 15, 2012

The first word – ever – in the English language? The closest we'll come to knowing, says linguist and author David Crystal, is "roe," a kind of deer.


Thanks to Julie Andrews, we know that a doe is a deer, a female deer. Animal fans might also be aware that roe is a species of deer.

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Here's one you haven't heard: "roe" may be the closest that we've ever come to the first English word. That's the verdict of British linguist David Crystal, one of the world's top word experts.
His evidence? The ankle-bone of a roe deer that was discovered decades ago in Norfolk, England. Someone wrote what seems to be the equivalent of the word "roe" on it back around the fifth century or so, possibly to show where it came from. The bone seems to have been used in a game, so maybe the word helped people figure out the role it would play. (I like to imagine that kids back then played "Chutes and Roes" or "Monopo-Cave." But I digress.)


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