[PW] Stumped my local library ...

John Cowan cowan at mercury.ccil.org
Thu Mar 24 14:58:29 PDT 2016

Peter Zilahy Ingerman, PhD scripsit:

> In each of them, the indefinite article is also the word for "one".

Well, up to a point.  "One" as a counting number in German is "eins";
to differentiate between "a man" and "one man" (both "ein Mann") you
put emphasis on the "ein" when it means "one".  This is a little more
formal in Dutch, where they write "een man" for "a man" and "één man"
for "one man".

> English, however, has a word for "one" that is distinct from the
> indefinite article.

Not that distinct.  It's no accident that "one" and "an" closely
resemble each other in writing, even though they're pretty divided
in pronunciation.  "An" (of which "a" is a short form) is pretty much
unchanged since Old English times.  "One" was influenced by a general
sound change transforming long /a/ into long /o/; in Middle English it
was pronounced as "own" is pronounced today.  A later, irregular sound
change pried "one" apart from its close relatives "alone", "atone", and
"lonely", which are etymologically "all one", "at one", and "all-one-ly".

> Are there any other languages (not necessarily Indo-European) that
> have indefinite articles that are distinct from the word for "one"?

I think it's pretty much a universal rule, among languages that have
articles at all, that the definite article is a form of "that" and
the indefinite article is a form of "one".

John Cowan          http://www.ccil.org/~cowan        cowan at ccil.org
I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen,    http://www.ccil.org/~cowan
han mathon ne chae, a han noston ne 'wilith.  --Galadriel, LOTR:FOTR

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