[continued from here]
If you look at the WALS map showing the distribution of different types of indefinite articles in Europe, you get the impression that there are quite a few languages using something else than the cardinal ‘one’ in this function. Those languages include English, Dutch, Frisian, Danish, Breton, Albanian, and Hungarian. This impression is very misleading.
|Zooming in on Europe|
Whoa, wait a minute... What about English?
English is no exception either. Although it may seem that the basic form of the indefinite numeral is a /ə/ (a cat, a friend), and we add a final /n/ only before a vowel (an apple, an heir) to avoid hiatus, the historical sequence was the other way round. The oldest form of the article was an, and the final /n/ was deleted before word-initial consonants, first optionally and variably, then obligatorily. And what else is an if not a low-stress variant of Old English ān ‘one’? Just as in German or French, the numeral came to be employed as a marker of indefiniteness, and when used in that function (which increased its frequency of occurrence quite dramatically – by more than an order of magnitude) it suffered the usual consequences of being such a tremendous replicator: an increased tolerance of phonetic reduction, leading to the gradual evaporation of phonological substance. The vowel changed from /ɑː/ to /a/, and eventually to /ə/. The deletion of word-final /n/ in function words and in grammatical endings was widespread in Middle English. That’s why we have Modern English my (before a noun) for OE mīn (but mine otherwise, and compare obsolete mine eyes, when a vowel followed). In Chaucer’s language it was possible to use o or oo (pronounced /ɔː/) as a variant of the numeral oon (ǭn) before a consonant:
Noght oo word spak he moore than was neede. [The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, the description of the Clerk]
In early Middle English an was common before words beginning with a consonant, and various inflected forms of the indefinite article (ane, anre, anes, etc., parallel to German eine, einer, eines...) were still preserved in more conservative dialects. By the end of the Middle English period the distribution of a and an already resembled that observed today (with some minor differences, like the use of an before a pronounced /h/). The functional duplication (and formal multiplication!) of OE ān was complete and fixed.
But the story is not finished yet, and will be continued in the next post.