04 February 2013

Ex Uno Plures: One Gets Duplicated

[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
As a matter of fact, Hungarian egy serves both as an indefinite article (‘a, an’) and a numeral (‘one’). Albanian has a rich inventory of indefinite pronouns, but the one that functions as the indefinite article is një, identical with the numeral ‘one’. Breton uses un as the indefinite article, and unan as the numeral ‘one’. It takes no powerful linguistic insight to realise that the former is just a truncated variant of the latter (by the way: they are distantly related to French un/une, but not borrowed from French!). The same goes for Frisian, which has in ‘a(n)’ and ien ‘one’, In Danish, en (common gender) and et (neuter) are used in both functions. The difference between the indefinite article and the numeral is one of stress, hence the optional use of an acute accent (én/ét) in the numeral. We find the same orthographic device in Dutch (een ‘a(n)’ ~ één ‘one’), and in Norwegian (placed by the editors of the WALS in the “same form” basket). Of course stressed and unstressed forms tend to develop divergently, as the latter are affected by vowel reduction (e.g. Dutch /eːn/ versus /ən/). This is our old friend, word duplication, at work. That’s the reason why the WALS considers the difference as lexicalised, therefore significant, in some languagesSome subtle contrasts may be found in languages not listed as having indefinite markers different from ‘one’. For example, the Romanian indefinite articles are un (masculine) and (feminine), identical with the corresponding forms of the numeral, all derived from Latin ūnu-/ūna ‘one’. But the Romanian indefinite article has a nom./acc. plural form, niște, which is suppletive, i.e. co-opted from a different source (namely, from the Latin phrase nescio quid, roughly translatable as ‘whatever’). Compare French plural des, unrelated to singular un/uneYet, to sum up, the indefinite article, if it exists at all, either has the same form as the numeral ‘one’ at least in the singular or differs from it only minimally, showing clear evidence of a historical relationship. This is what we find throughout Europe. There are no real exceptions.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Uk isn't different sometimes. Even though it may appear how the basic form of the everlasting numeral is a And?/ (the cat, an associate)
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