07 February 2013

The Secret Ways of Weak Forms: Here Comes a New ’Un

[continued from here]

You may find it surprising, but we have quite precise and insightful analyses of English pronunciation, complete with phonetic transcriptions, dating back to the sixteenth century. One exceptionally talented early phonetician, born centuries ahead of his time, was John Hart, the author of An Orthographie (1569), a treatise in which he advocated a spelling system that would reflect the pronunciation of the Tudor period faithfully by using as many symbols as there were contrastive speech-sounds, “and no more”. Hart left us numerous transcriptions of his variety of Early Modern English in the system he had devised. His testimony is highly reliable: we can be pretty confident that he pronounced whole, one and those with the same vowel, and that there was no initial /w/ in his pronunciation of one. Represented with the help of modern IPA symbols, his transcription of one  is /oːn/. Incidentally, he also had /ˈoːnlɪ/ for only, and in case you have not figured it out for yourselves, only = one + the suffix -ly, forming adjectives and adverbs.

We have to remember, however, that English has been (at least) as variable in the past as it is today. There is spelling evidence to show that some varieties of Middle English tended to insert a glide before any word-initial vowel, as if trying to force every word to begin with a consonant. The glide tended to match the features of the vowel, so we usually find the rounded back glide /w/ before rounded back vowels, including ME /ɔː/. Middle English scribes had no common standard to conform to, so they often used “ear-spellings”, revealing their pronunciation habits. We thus find occasional w-initial variants of words like ǭte ‘oat’, ǭth ‘oath’, ǭn ‘one’, ǭnes ‘once’, ǭnliche or ǭnlie ‘only’, ǭld ‘old’, ǭk ‘oak’, etc. The idealised “dictionary” spellings cited in the preceding sentence represent a Late Middle English “virtual norm” that didn’t really exist. The actual spelling was highly variable, and the documented variants include wote, woth, won, wonys, wonlyche, wolde, wooke, etc. None of these forms survived into mainstream Modern English, except, it seems, one and once (the modern spelling does not follow the mutated pronunciation).

What I think happened was that forms with an initial glide came to be stigmatised as regional or vulgar, and were avoided in “cultivated” speech. The exceptional pronunciation of one became fixed not in the full form employed when speaking slowly and distinctly, but rather in the reduced form used in unstressed positions when the word functioned as a pronoun – a colloquial pronunciation like /wʊn/ or /wən/, resulting from the phonetic weakening of /ˈwɔːn/ at an early date. There is also a /w/-less variant of such an informal weak pronunciation: Modern English /ən/, as in a good ’un (note, by the way, that both a and un have the same Old English ancestor!). A “sloppy” form hiding in unstressed positions apparently managed to escape the attention of purists, who naturally focussed on the elegance and clarity of formal speech. Words which had no weak forms (like ‘oak’ and the rest) lost the initial glide irreversibly. But stressed /ˈoːn/ (as recorded by Hart after the Great Vowel Shift) was paired with unstressed /wən/, in which the parasitic /w/ was able to survive.

Hat tip: The VoiceGuy
(and yet the weak often win)
One frequent scenario leading to the emergence of new irregular variants consists in the restressing of weak forms. When the Modern English indefinite article a/an is pronounced emphatically, it does not revert to its historical source but generates new stressed forms, such as /eɪ/, /æn/. Neither did /wən/ evolve back into /woːn/ when it was reinstated in stressed positions. It spawned new forms (possibly a variety of them) with a restored full vowel, such as /wʊn/, /wʌn/ or /wɒn/ (as in northern England). Those innovations began to compete with /oːn/ and with its descendant /oʊn/ – first as an alternative pronunciation of the pronoun under stress, then also in the numeral.  And weak forms can be formidable competitors. Their sheer frequency of use enables them to survive and repeatedly claim niches inhabited by their rarer if stronger counterparts. Eventually, the new pronunciation infected not only the numeral but also the related words once and none (the latter from ME nǭn, which continued OE nān = ne + ān ‘not one’); possibly also nothing (ME nǭn thing ‘not a/one thing’).

Less transparent derivatives and compounds containing OE ān were left intact and continued to develop regularly, which is why we still have /oʊ/ in only (OE ān-līċone-like’), alone (OE eall + āna ‘all solitary’), and atone (ME at-ǭnen, mirroring Latin ad-ūnō ‘unite’). When the replacement happened, they were already living their own independent lives, and their connection with one was not transparent enough to trigger analogical change.

The discussion would not be complete without mentioning the traditional Scots variants reflecting a ME form with unrounded /aː/ (OE /ɑː/ did not change into /ɔː/ in the Northern Middle English dialect ancestral to Scots and to some northern varieties of British English). Hence we have dialectal forms spelt ae or ane, and pronounced [eː], [en], or [jɪn], depending on the local accent. They are the more-or-less regular outcome either of Northern Middle English ān ‘one’ or of its by-form in which the final /n/ was dropped.


  1. I have always imagined it must have been this way:

    [a:n]-->[ɔːn], the [ɔː] gets early raised to [o:] in the dialect(s) from which 'wun' was eventually 'borrowed', then [u:] (GVS), then shortened (in the same dialect(s)) to [u], then turns to [ʌ], in that dialect as in so many others, some time in the meantime it gets a [w-].

    Getting a [w-] pretached is rather common in Polish dialects, may be the origin of [v] in Lithuanian 'vienas' (one) (Lith.~Engl. in this respect?), is almost certainly (?) the origin of [v] in Ukrainian 'vin', 'vona', vono' (he she it). Interestingly, it gets deleted in front of a back vowel in Scandinavian, ord-word, etc.

    The scenario above is naturally my amateurish hypothesis, of which I am most painfully aware. But---did something like it not happen with the past tense of 'strike'---'struck', instead of '*stroke' (stricken, which does exist). And your story above does not quite convince me either: how did 'one' manage to do without a w-less 'clear' (lento) form, why did the 'sloppy' form get its vowel restored in the form of /wʊn/, /wʌn/ or /wɒn/, and how did the latter replace the 'official' or 'refined' form [o:n] recorded by Hart (one answer: the latter did not exist any more in the awareness of most English speakers at the time, Hart may have recorded the form 'as it ought to be', which may make your account and my story flow into one--wun--in fact).

    Why, then, only, alone, and atone, and not wunly, alwun and atwun? Well, c'est du^ a` la fre'quence, or rather, a` la non-fre'quence (relative) of these words as compared to one and once...

  2. Actually, several orthoepists writing much later that Hart still prescribed a pronunciation of one, none, once with the vowel of stone. Hart himself, judging from his comments, was a very good observer and I don't think he would have recommended an obsolescent pronunciation.

    Your scenario is actually close to the standard handbook one. Some authors make the "prothetic" /w/ responsible for raising the vowel to /oː/ (> /uː/ by GVS). In my opinion, this is unnecessarily complicated. I know of no evidence for /uː/ in this word, and why didn't it lose the initial /w/ like OE wāse > ooze? Such a loss also happened in the environment /Cwuː/, where the raising of ME /ɔː/ was regular (as in two, who, whom, whose).

    Alone, atone were early detached from this word-family, so they were not influenced by anything that happened to one. I'm more surprised that only did not become "wunly", but one can hardly expect an analogical process to be 100% consistent.

  3. ' why didn't it lose the initial /w/ like OE wāse > ooze? Such a loss also happened in the environment /Cwuː/, where the raising of ME /ɔː/ was regular (as in two, who, whom, whose).'

    this puzzles me too. But maybe such cases are rather exceptional, as opposed to 'won', 'wood', 'wonder', 'wuthering', 'wool' etc. Maybe the 'functional load' of [w] after [t] or [h] was low---in Swedish there is an archaic form 'ho', pron. 'hoo', as distinct from the equally archaic Danish form 'hvo' (who), in Danish, by contrast, 'two' is 'to'. In Neonorwegian (nynorsk) it's 'kor', how, Danish 'hvor'.

    Or maybe the prothetic [w] was attached after the vowel had no longer been [u]?

    There is William Barnes, a Dorset poet, who wrote such poems as 'The Girt Woak Tree' or 'The Girt Wold House o' Mwossy Stwone'.

    I don't believe either that Hart prescribed obsolescent forms, but possibly ... 'prescribable' forms, i.e. such as he believed were the 'true' forms of the word, or reflected the word as it ought to be. In th'olden times (say more than 50 years ago) people did not have such a discrimination (as have we) between the statistic norm and the deontic ('should', 'ought to') norm.

  4. P.S. --- a somewhat similar evolution: tuppence; again, not *twuppence. Maybe in the Barnesian Dorset dialect. The difference is though that 'one' acquired a /w/ it had never had, while 'two' and 'ooze' lost one they had had. In American English there are forms like 'whut', 'wuz' for 'what', 'was'.

  5. The American pronunciation of these words (also that of of and from) looks precisely like the expected "reinforced weak form", i.e. one with a re-stressed schwa. Today's predominant strong forms of are and were (different from air and ware) are of a similar origin.

  6. Maybe I am like a creationist fighting against the Darwinian apes, but I have some trouble understanding the very concept of a reinforced form (which plays a crucial role in your account of one=wun). The strong form disappears from the linguistic awareness of the speakers and is then replaced by a reinforced form? Or the two compete and the reinforced 'un wins out? And: why then is it reinforced with this rather than another vowel? John C. Wells and his friends once argued that 'than' had just a weak form, with a schwa---is it any likely, I 'onder, that one day a reinforced form 'thun' should crop up?

  7. If speakers have a reason to stress it, why not? (though at the moment the conventional citation form is /ðæn/). BTW, then and than were not consistently distinguished in spelling or pronunciation until the 18th century, and the modern strong forms are artifacts of standardisation.

    The reason why the vowel of cut is preferred as a "reinforced schwa" is plain: acoustic and articulatory similarity. Note also weak /gənə/ → stressed /'gʌnə/ for gonna = going to (also usually in wanna = want to).

  8. ' (though at the moment the conventional citation form is /ðæn/). BTW, then and than were not consistently distinguished in spelling or pronunciation until the 18th century, and the modern strong forms are artifacts of standardisation.'

    Yeah, but how often do they really use rather than mention the conventional citation form? It appears rather like the Hartian [o:n] to me.

    In German, it's the rather way 'round: 'dann'='then', 'denn'='than'. but like in English, this used to be unstable: 'wenn schon, denn schon', today it would have been '... dann schon'. Similarly with 'wenn/wann'. 'Whan that Aprylle with his shoores soote... Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages'. At the same time in Germany they wrote 'swenn', 'es wenn', 'that whan'.

    Dutch agrees with English: 'dan'.

    Is there a stressed 'gonna' adall? This perplexes me. 'Have you done your homework yet?' 'No, but I am gonna /'gʌnə/'?

  9. s there a stressed 'gonna' adall? This perplexes me. 'Have you done your homework yet?' 'No, but I am gonna /'gʌnə/'?

    I don't think I would normally use it sentence-finally (perhaps because it still contains an underlying stranded preposition for me), but the opinions of native speakers vary:


    In other positions, why not, in the informal register?

  10. 'In other positions, why not, in the informal register?'

    because it's basically an allegro form, innit? But OK, even such forms can be stressed: Do you homework! No, I don't WANNA... with 'wanna' very very heavily stressed... . And yet, this is very different from our original starting point (one, wun), because 'gonna', 'wanna', 'than' exist if not only then primarily in non-stressed forms, so their reinforcement is neither conceptually nor otherwise a problem, and I grant, the STRUT vowel is for them the natural solution (maybe not for 'than' but of the three this'un is the least likely to ever get a true strong form).

    Yet with 'one' the matters are different (methinketh, at least). From your description in the interesting main text one could get the impression that for a long time a strong form of 'one' existed not at all or only dubiously and marginally, like it does for the three words here mentioned. It is at least my feeling that you are implying that above, without saying that expressly. Now, I for my part find it somehow hard to believe that a word like 'one', with all its various meanings and functions, should exist for a long time as a weak, sloppy form alone, with its 'true' strong form so feeble in the linguistic awareness of the speakers that it should need, at last, reinforcing along the lines here traced out. That is why I am not quite convinced by your story.

  11. One must have been unstressed most of the time if you reflect that it's the source of the indefinite article. Even today, one hundred and a hundred can be used interchangeably. Also remember that the syntax of complex numerals was different than today. In one-and-twenty, for example, the main stress is on twenty. As a pronoun, one is usually unstressed. I'm not saying that the strong pronunciation was rare, but that the weak form was sufficiently frequent to be promoted to the status of an independent variant with a new emphatic form of its own.

  12. ' I'm not saying that the strong pronunciation was rare, but that the weak form was sufficiently frequent to be promoted to the status of an independent variant with a new emphatic form of its own.'

    Then I must say I fail to see, or imagine, what the exact mechanism of this promotion must have been like---given that, as you (e silentio) admit, the strong form (the original 'un) was not rare. As an article, yes, as an indefinite pronoun, yes, that's clearly different functions of 'one' (in Afrikaans it's 'n pronounced just like 'a' the ind. art. in English, strangely)---but as a numeral? But, you have said something like that has happened with what, was, from and of in Amer. Engl., where the original strong forms co-habit with new-fangled reinforced ones (with the STRUT vowel)---OK, but I am sure how this happened: were the original strong forms in the US not frequent enough? Besides, the original strong form of one disappeared, was suppressed by wun.

    One comparison that springs to my mind: the expression 'I'd rather' etc. where no-one is any more certain whether the strong form of 'd' be 'would' or 'had'

  13. I posted at John Wells's some time back that my father (born in Philadelphia in 1904) pronounced hardon, hard-on as /ˈhɑrdɘn/, homophonous with harden, and that this surely reflected an underlying hard 'un, since hard on is ungrammatical, hard not being a noun.