Welcome to my first Word Nerd post for 2018. Since it’s the first post for the year, I thought it apt to look at a related word that has always puzzled me: one. Have you ever wondered why we spell it o-n-e when it’s pronounced wun? Chances are, you probably don’t give it much thought, but if you’ve ever had to teach spelling to young children, I’m sure you’ve had the question asked at least once. And that’s another word. Once. Related to one, obviously, and pronounced along the same lines, and yet only—another related word—is not pronounced wunly.
Why is this so?
I actually ended up having to dig deep on this one, because a lot of answers I found pretty much just said, “We don’t know.” The word one comes from the Old English ‘an‘—which still retains the sense of ‘one’ as an indefinite article in English—and was originally pronounced exactly the way it looks, probably sounding something like our word ‘own‘. From there, explanations became vague, just mentioning that it began to change around the 14th century and that no lesser person than William Tyndale spelled it won in his Bible translation—so presumably its pronunciation had largely transitioned by then, even if his spelling didn’t catch on.
Not exactly the elucidating answer I was hoping for.
The Great Vowel Shift was a phenomenon first studied and labelled by Danish linguist Otto Jesperson. Over a period of a few hundred years (scholars argue over how narrow or wide a period of time, but we’re talking roughly 1350-1700) the vowel sounds in English began to change. If you’ve ever studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or tried to read something written in Middle English, you’ll know how different it looks from modern English, but the difference isn’t just in the way it was written; it was also in the way in which it was pronounced.
The Great Vowel Shift affected all vowels to some degree, but the most affected vowels were the long monophthong (single sound) vowels of Middle English, which began to move forward in the mouth—changing the pronunciation of words as they went—and created new diphthongs.
If you’re nerdy like me, you might enjoy this twenty minute video, which gives an excellent overview of how the vowel sounds changed and some of the common words that were affected. (And I’m seriously jealous of the way this guy can distinguish between all the nuanced vowel variations!) If you’re looking for a more succinct demonstration, you can go to the Wikipedia entry for the Great Vowel Shift, and about halfway down the page, you’ll find a table with some audio examples of how a few words changed over this period.
The complicating factor in all of this was that, at the same time as this shift in pronunciation was taking place, spelling was also being standardized. Unfortunately for us, spelling was standardized before the shift in pronunciation finished taking place, accounting for many of the puzzling irregularities in English that may have frustrated you as a young speller. Like why we say break and steak, but beak and seat, and have homophones like meet and meat.
The way all of this specifically affected the word one is only speculative, but the best suggestion I’ve seen is that, along with the vowel and corresponding spelling shift, a glide was gradually added at the beginning of the word that transitioned the onset (initial sound) through oh→uo (oo-oh)→wo. It’s even suggested that regional dialects (in this case, probably south-west England) could have influenced the way some words altered during the Great Vowel Shift, an idea that is not really surprising if you look at the regional variations in pronunciation that still exist in England today.
No wonder English is such a gloriously messy language!