03 February 2013

There Is Only Wun Such Number

Among the words whose Old English prototype contained the vowel /ɑː/, one is rather special. I mean, one is rather special – you know, the cardinal numeral referring to lowest positive integer. It is so common that I used it in the first sentence of this post without premeditation. In Old English, its form was ān, rhyming with bān ‘bone’ and stān ‘stone’. To be sure, its nominative singular was ān, but the word behaved like a typical adjective, so it was inflected for gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), case (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental), and number (singular, plural). Even better than that: like most Old English adjectives it had two types of declension, “strong” and “weak” (never mind the reason why, it isn’t important here). Most of those forms contained /ɑː/, like the nom.sg., but the strong acc.sg. masculine was ǣnne (with an umlauted vowel). However, the post-Old English collapse of the elaborate Germanic system of case and gender killed off all the inflected forms, leaving only ān, which became Middle English ǭn.

1 is special: Benford’sLaw
(the relative frequency of first digits in real-life data listings)
‘One’ is exceptional among the numerals in that it easily develops new grammatical functions and shades of meaning. Apart from its use in counting (“one, two, three...”), it can mean ‘single, lone, not two or more’ (“one cup of coffee”, “one at a time”), ‘unique, only, distinct from others’ (“the one thing that I’m sure of”), ‘the same’ (“we are of one mind”), ‘whole, complete’ (“in one piece”), ‘this, as contrasted with the other’ (“on the one hand...”), ‘a certain, indefinite, some’ (“one Sunday morning”), ‘typical, representative of a class’ (“he was one such person”) or even, emphatically, ‘veritable’ (“one hell of a show”). It has also been co-opted as a pronoun, meaning ‘an indefinite person’ ( “one never knows”), or replacing a noun in a noun phrase (“I need a bigger one”).  In brief, it’s a hard-working word. No wonder it ranks #35 on the Oxford Corpus frequency list, squarely between my and all.

Some languages employ different words for the different senses of English one. This is the likely reason why there’s no single Indo-European root for the cardinal ‘one’. In the languages descended from Proto-Indo-European we have a family of words based on a root reconstructed (roughly) as *oi- (among them *oino-, the ancestor of Proto-Germanic *aina- and, consequently, OE ān), competing with the root *sem-. The original semantic distinction is hard to reconstruct, but it seems likely that *oino- etc. meant ‘single, isolated’, while *sem- combined such meanings as ‘taken together, united’ with ‘one of a series’.

On the other hand, in some languages the cardinal ‘one’ has still more functions than in English. In particular, ‘one’ commonly serves as an indefinite article (French un/une, German ein/eine). Indeed, it seems that about half of the languages that have indefinite articles as a grammatical category, the numeral for ‘one’ doubles up in that capacity [see the World Atlas of Language Structures].

But I suppose this is enough for one blog message (one cannot absorb too much at one time, can one?). The tale will be continued tomorrow. And it’s a long and twisted one.


  1. I used to be skeptical about the derivation of Lith. ýnas 'true, real' from
    , but after reading this message I've changed my mind :) Thank you!

  2. Well, in almost all languages the indefinite article either is the word for 'one' (like German), or is obviously derived from it (like English). Other sources of indefinite articles constitute only about 10% of the WALS languages that have them at all, and such languages are widely scattered both geographically and by language family.