Readers reply: what was humanity’s first word?

<span>‘Ouch!’</span><span>Photograph: gorodenkoff/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
‘Ouch!’Photograph: gorodenkoff/Getty Images/iStockphoto

What was the first word that humanity uttered? There must have been one … Raymond Simms, Hull

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“Wilma!” bricklayersoption

I think there was a sudden transition from vocalised strings of sounds to meaningful sentences. At that point, most would already have recognised the meaning or intent, but not yet made it clear to themselves what the connection was between the sounds and the deliberate intent to make meaning. I bet it happened during song; someone was fooling around and suddenly it made sense, like when babies learn to walk. HolgerDan

“Help!” or “Run!” Asherink

Many a long year ago, I studied Herodotus, the Greek historian, who had a story about this. A king wanted to know the first word ever spoken by humankind, so he had two children brought up by a goatherd, never hearing spoken voices, and waited to see what word they would first come up with by themselves. It was supposedly “bekos”, which was the Phrygian word for “bread”. This is not very scientific, but shows that people have been debating this for a long time … HGrant

It was almost certainly “mama”, “papa”, “dada”, “abba” or some variation of those. It is no coincidence that names for parents are similar to baby babble sounds in almost all languages: it’s a win-win. Parents can believe their baby is speaking and baby gets rewarded for making the “right” sounds. Natalie O’Tham

I read somewhere that indexical terms like “that” and “this” are very important contenders. If I had to choose one or the other, I’d go with “that”. What you haven’t got is always somehow more interesting than what you have. aoidh

In the beginning was the word; before the word was the clearing of the throat. (With thanks to Terry Pratchett.) David Hoare

Humanity’s first word had be something basic and yet so important that it needed to be conveyed to others. I’m thinking it was “food”, this to signal to others where the food was and what was safe to eat. While primitive humans may not have been big on sharing, they must have had mates and children (the species did survive, after all), so I think they would have needed to help each other find the nearest snack. Gareth Bell

Pointing to each other, Adam and Eve both uttered: “Ooo!” which later became: “You!” RPOrlando

The Norwegian linguist Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon was able to decipher the very ancient (second millennium BC) Hittite language in part because the Hittite word for “water” was approximately “wadar” – ie it was remarkably similar to the word found in many modern Indo-European languages, including English and German (“wasser”). He knew what the sounds involved in Hittite were because it was written in the same cuneiform script as other languages that had previously been deciphered; guessing that “wadar” might mean “water” was one of the crucial breakthroughs he needed to decipher the meanings behind the words.

So, I can’t say definitively that the word “water” was the first word ever used by humans, but (as truly befits one of the most basic prerequisites for life) it certainly has one of the longest histories of continuous use. I find that deeply satisfying. ProjectXRay

If the evolution of my three children is any guide, the first word would have been: “No.” DaveinWales

“Bugger!” Michael J Day

“Thank you for your patience, our lines are very busy. Your call is important to us.” MichaelM12345