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 we have a record of was discovered during an archeological dig near Norwich, England in the early 1930s. It was written in an ancient runic script carved on the bone of a deer: “raihan.” But what does it mean?
Another reason it’s hard to say when a language began is that 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? (Or for that matter, German, Dutch, or Norwegian?)
The most sensible thing to ask when looking for the first English word, then, is 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. Importantly, this was just before a major linguistic turning point in the history of English: the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. Before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of 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 just a few hundred years later would become dominant across the area and take the form of Old English.
The bone appears to pre-date the Anglo-Saxons, but is in some sort of Germanic language. Who made this inscription? Members of a Germanic tribe that worked for the Romans? Warriors for hire? It’s still a mystery. But “raihan” is our first physical document of the beginning of English.
The meaning of the word “raihan” is also a bit of a mystery. The “n” at the end looks like a type of possessive ending that some Germanic languages had then. It could mean “Raiha’s,” as in “this belongs to Raiha.” Or it could be related to the root “rei,” which could either mean to cut or to color. It could also refer to the carver of the inscription, the one who polished and prepared the bone.
However, it’s most likely that the meaning is the animal the ankle bone comes from. In Old English, the word for roe-deer is “raha” or “raa.” “Raihan” is different, but not so different that it couldn’t have changed into “raha” over time.
What is it for? Another clue to the meaning of the word is the purpose of the bone. The urn in which it was found also contains a number of other smaller bones from sheep or goats. Taken together, 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 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 luck of preservation and discovery, know the word.