09 February 2013

The Family Life of One

[continued from here]

Let’s have another look at the Oxford English Corpus list of the most frequent words. As we realise now, one (#35) is not the only descendant of OE ān to be found there. We also find the following:

a (#6), an (#32)

Also the first syllable of only (#75) is no other than the regular reflex of ān. No fewer than four out of the 100 most frequent English word-forms have the same Old English ancestor. Jolly good show!

Actually, another relative of one is hiding in the list. It is any (#95), which goes back to Old English ǣniġ, related to German einig and descended from earlier *ain-iga-. Its ǣ instead of ā is due to the assimilatory influence of the vowel *i in the following syllable (umlaut). Latin has a word with the very same root and apparently the same suffix, ūnicus ‘sole, unique’ < *oiniko-. The meaning is different from that of OE ǣniġ, but related forms in other Germanic languages usually have the same meaning as the Latin one. Old English must therefore have innovated by converting an adjective meaning ‘only, sole’ into an indefinite pronoun (‘one of many, no matter which’).

Of course the Modern English offspring of ān is even more numerous. Suffice it to mention lone, which has resulted from the faulty analysis of alone as ‘a- + lone’ (on the analogy of pairs like live and alive). The actual etymology of alone is in fact ‘all + one’, but speakers can’t be expected to know the historical origin of the words they use. Once lone became a legitimate English adjective, it started producing its own derivatives, such as lonely and lonesome. The list could be made much longer. One easily enters into symbiotic relationships with other words, forming compounds like one-eyed, one-sided, one-way, etc. The structure of these three is fully transparent. Such compounds are a dime a dozen, but if they evolve for a sufficiently long time, interesting things happen to them.  Gradually, over the centuries, their internal structure suffers obscuration as a result of the erosive effect of sound changes. Thus, prehistoric *aina-liban- ‘11’ (literally something like ‘one left over [when you subtract ten]’) became OE endleofan, ændlefen or ellefne, eventually yielding eleven. An etymologist will inform you that the initial e- is a distant cousin of one, but to a speaker of Modern English the numeral is an atomic entity that cannot be broken down into smaller meaningful elements. The same, in all likelihood, would have been true of Old English speakers.
[click to enlarge]

Here is a (partial) family tree of word-forms whose common ancestor is Old English ān. It is contained in a larger tree – that of words derived from Proto-Germanic *aina-. It’s a very successful family, both because it has many members and because some of those members have become indispensable to English speakers (as shown by their extremely high frequency of occurrence).


  1. While subscribing to this fine blog today, I remembered the following lines from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (which I guess contain one more member of the family):
    So had I spoken with hem everichon
    That I was of hir fellawship anon

  2. A nice example! thanks for reminding me of anon (Old English on ān).

  3. 'Latin has a word with the very same root and apparently the same suffix, ūnicus ‘sole, unique’ < *oiniko-. The meaning is different from that of OE ǣniġ, but related forms in other Germanic languages usually have the same meaning as the Latin one.'

    In German, in fact, 'einig' predicatively means 'agreed, of one opinion', 'wir sind uns einig'='we agree'. In attributive position ,'einig' means most often 'some', 'a couple of' or such, thus quite close to 'any'. It possibly occurred in the sense of 'of one mind, concurrent' in GDR's 'national' anthem, 'Deutschland---einig Vaterland', but I am not sure. In the German national anthem, by contrast, they sing: 'Einigkeit, und Recht, und Freiheit'---Agreement, Rule of Law, (Civil) Liberties (is the warrant of happiness).

    The Dutch 'enig' is methinks closer to 'unicus'...

    In Swedish, 'enig', like the predicative 'einig' in German, means 'united, agreed, unanimous'.

    In Icelandic the word does not seem to exist, they say just 'einn' for 'unicus'; there is 'eining', agreement, unity, though.

    BTW could you explain somewhere in your blog the irregular pronunciation of 'any'/'many'? Tho' these words 'should' (spelling) be pronounced 'ayny/mayny', the most frequent error of school-children (non-anglophone) is saying 'anny/manny' (with the TRAP-vowel), so do the Irish in their accent.

    1. Any < OE ǽnig, many < mæneg, mænig. In ME times, the stressed vowel became short e in the South, short a in the Midlands, and short o further north. The spelling follows the Midlands dialect, the direct ancestor of Standard English, but the pronunciation was displaced by a Southern form.

  4. Still for 'einig' in German --- it sometimes means just 'one' (as distinct from many, split into many), as in the German version of 'Credo' (Niceno-Constantinopolitan): Ich glaube an die Kirch' allein, die einig, heilig, allgemein: Credo in unam sanctam catholicam (et apostolicam) Ecclesiam.

  5. it sometimes indicates just 'one' (as distinct from many, split into numerous), as in the particular The german language form of 'Credo' (Niceno-Constantinopolitan):

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