06 February 2013

A Strange Couple: One and Once

[continued from here]

In one ofthe earlier posts I said that the non-nominative case-forms of OE ān did not survive the collapse of the Old English declensional system. It is now time to qualify that statement. They did not survive in their original function, qua case-forms. But occasionally isolated inflected forms of Old English origin were utilised as something else, usually as adverbs. By specialising in a new function they moved into a secure niche which protected them from extinction. This is something worth keeping in mind. Such “living fossils” often appear in various languages. The loss of a grammatical category normally means that all forms marked for that category are discarded, but not if they manage to find employment in some other department.

Dæġes and nihtes
M. C. Escher, Day and Night (1938)
The Old English  genitive was often used adverbially, especially in expressions of time. Such is the origin of adverbs like nights ‘(regularly) at night’, as in “He works nights” (sometimes reformulated as “of a night”). The final -s continues the Old English gen.sg. ending -es (and so, from the historical point of view, has nothing to do with the plural -s of Modern English, but is closely related to the “Saxon genitive”). In Old English, gen.sg. forms like dæġes, nihtes meant, respectively, ‘by day’ and ‘by night’. The phrase þæs ġēares (the gen.sg. of þæt ġēar) meant ‘(in) that year’. In my native language, Polish, the same meaning is expressed as tego roku (also the genitive case of ‘that year’). We find a similar use of the ablative case in Latin (die ‘by day’, nocte ‘by night’ – the so-called ablativus temporis).

The gen.sg. of OE ān in the masculine or neuter gender was ānes /ˈɑːnəs/. Although it is not attested as an adverb (it seems the Anglo-Saxons preferred  the specialised “true” adverb ǣne ‘one time, on one occasion’, also related to ān), its Middle English descendant, ǭnes (the actual spelling was usually ones, oones, oonys, ons, or something similar) was so employed on the analogy of other adverbial genitives, such as nightes ‘at night, by night’, slowly outcompeting its older synonym, ME ę̄ne (from OE ǣne, see above). This is the source of Modern English once. Note that although the final -s is etymologically identical with the Saxon genitive suffix, its pronunciation is voiceless (/s/), unlike that found in the reformed modern genitive of pronominal one, namely one’s (with final /z/). In fact, the voiceless pronunciation is older. The voicing in the Saxon genitive is a late innovation. Once was left unaffected because it was no longer analysed as a genitive. The ending is similarly voiceless in twice and thrice, which reflect the Old English adverbs twiġa and þriġa. They developed into Middle English twīe, thrīe, which then became extended with the suffix -s on the analogy of ǭnes.

But if OE āc, āte, āþ (all with initial /ɑː/) yielded regularly ME ǭk, ǭte, ǭth, and eventually Mod.E oak, oat, oath (with /oʊ/, as expected), why are one and once pronounced as if they were spelt wun, wunce? The spelling is like that of bone and stone, while the pronunciation is completely crazy. No other instance of English o is pronounced /wʌ/. Why, then, does one sound like won, and not like own? This question will be tackled in the next post.


  1. The minor but productive sentence type the ... the, as in The more I read this blog, the more I enjoy writing comments on it, shows no special morphology, but the articles are descendants of the OE instrumental.

  2. “He works nights” (sometimes reformulated as “of a night”).

    -Hardy: What did he die of?
    -Laurel: I think he died of a Tuesday.