The earliest form of English is called Old English or Anglo-Saxon. Researchers have determined that town is the oldest word in the English language, originates from Old English, and has kept the same definition through the millennia. Evidence of the extent of the Anglo-Saxon settlements are found in the number of place names throughout England ending with -ton, meaning “enclosure or village” (e.g., Taunton, Burton, and Luton).
The convention of using -ton was carried across the Atlantic, with my own hometown of Burlington, Iowa in the U.S. being an example. Originating from ‘Bridlington,’ a place name in East Yorkshire, England, the town was formerly pronounced locally as ‘Burlington,’ and is recorded in the Domesday Book as Bretlinton ‘estate.
It is estimated that about 85% of the 30,000 or so Anglo-Saxon words gradually died out under the cultural onslaught of the Vikings and the Normans who came after them. On the other hand, up to half of everyday modern English is typically made up of Old English words. Equally surprising, almost all of the hundred most commonly used words in modern English are of Anglo-Saxon origin.
If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in learning about the kerfuffle with the I pronoun or the shocking origins of words named after people. If you’d like to learn more about the history of the English language, check out my post The History of English!
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