Someone asked this on Quora and Oscar Tay gave a fascinating answer.

The oldest recorded word In English is Gægogæ mægæ medu.

The Undley Bracteate

In 1982, a farmer in Undley Common, Suffolk, England, was walking across his field when he came across a fantastic bit of history: The Undley Bracteate, an Anglo-Saxon medallion dating to 450 AD. It was small, no bigger than a penny, and inscribed with the image of two babies – presumably Romulus and Remus – suckling from a wolf.

Undley Bracteate | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

The Undley Bracteate is believed to be made in or near southern Denmark. It may have been brought to England by some of the earliest Germanic-speaking settlers. Image: the British Museum.

Gægogæ mægæ medu

The find itself would be interesting enough, but look carefully at that inscription around the edges. It’s not just a random pattern: in Runes, it says ᚷ‍ᚫᚷ‍ᚩᚷ‍ᚫ ᛗᚫᚷᚫ ᛗᛖᛞᚢ, gægogæ mægæ medu. It may as well be from an alien language, but this is the ancient form of a very familiar language – English, that is.

The Germanic languages were sparsely written before 500 AD, if at all, with the sole exception of Gothic. While they were certainly spoken before then, languages don’t leave fossils – besides writing.

So, what does it mean? There’s some debate about that, but the translations are roughly the same:

  • Mægæ means either “of a kinsman” or “for a kinsman.” It’s probably related to Swedish måg.
  • Medu means “reward.”
  • Gægogæ is rather more troublesome, though the translation usually cited is the feminine prefix gæ- plus the root gogæ, meaning something like “howling of an animal, especially a dog or wolf”. Considering the subject matter of the bracteate, this is the most likely.

The sentence, therefore, loosely translates to, “This she-wolf is a gift to my kinsman”. The Undley Bracteate is the oldest bit of definitively English writing, and gægogæ mægæ medu is English’s oldest sentence.

I hope this gives you fantasy and historical fiction writers some ideas!