Why do we pronounce “one” as “won”?

Why do we pronounce “one” and “won” the same way? After all, they are not remotely the same word!

To take the latter first, there is some instability in the pronunciation of the letter <o>, particularly before a nasal (typically <n> or <m>); it is frequently pronounced as if it were <u>. This is partly because it is only recently that (British) English moved to lip rounding on the letter <o> (even old Pathé news clips will show this lacking, as remains the case in American), so <o> and <u> were once more similar. The other reason, bizarrely, is simply orthography – some calligraphers did not like to write <u> before <n> or <m> because it could run together and become unclear, so they switched to <o>. The winning version in Standard Written English was chosen almost at random – hence we have “win-won” but “sing-sung”; and “son” and “sun” are pronounced identically. It was not completely random, etymology also had something to do with it – hence, for example, “London”.

What about “one”, why is it pronounced the same way?

Until the fifteenth century across England, and indeed later in most English-speaking areas, “one” was pronounced as you would expect, to rhyme with “stone” and close to modern southern English “own”. Of course, this remains in related words such as “only”, “(a)lone(ly)” and even in fact “atone”. Modern Scots does pronounce the direct equivalent ane “one” (cf. stane “stone”) as you would expect (Scots actually has a “y-glide” in such circumstances, thus it sounds like “yin”, but this is entirely predictable); and of course Dutch has een (cf. steen “stone”) and German has ein (cf. Stein).

So what happened to make English the lone (ahem) exception?

Well, nobody knows! Some things in language are just mysterious. This is just, well, one…


5 thoughts on “Why do we pronounce “one” as “won”?

  1. owen gawith says:

    Interesting. Are you going to turn your attention to the pronunciation of wh (as in poshly spoken which, whom etc ) as hw… , or indeed the spelling of spoken hw… as wh…. ? Would be good to read your take on that.

  2. Hadn’t thought of that, but I may well!

    Essentially it all originates from /hw-/, which used to be used for all question words but is an unstable sound, consisting of a combination (already unstable) of two sounds which are themselves unstable (lots of languages have neither).

    The /w/ was lost before certain low back vowels certainly before the Black Death (hence , pronounced and written without the ); and then again some time between the Black Death and Shakespeare before certain low front vowels some time afterwards (hence , written with but pronounced without). Subsequently many dialects lost the /h/, which is often lost anyway in pronunciation before vowels. However, careful speakers retain it… 🙂

  3. Deirdre Devlin says:

    Love it!

    Sent from my iPad

  4. Interestingly the Celtic languages … Both the Scottish and Irish Gaelic word “Aon” is pronounced very similar to Scots “Ane”, but the Welsh word “Un” … would probably sound like the Dutch word een (U sounding like “ee” in this case similar to the u in Cymru).

    However if you look at Breton and Cornish, the word for One is unan or onen both I think are pronounced like Un-An On-En … Brythonic languages closer to French are perhaps the closest of the pre-English language of the general region to be closed to ONE. This is also closest to the Latin word for One … Unum.

    The “un” (pronouced as UN as in Unmade) might be used in Scots dialects of course … “wain” … possibly a portmandeu of the phrase “wee ane” would be pronounced “wee un” in some Scots dialects

    Of course “un” and “une” is common in many of the French languages or possibly Latin languages but French also has the phrase “On” which means … a completely different “One” … On ma avis! In one’s opinion … and is used in English phrases like One is not amused.

    This is a slender version of un though … it doesn’t have the “w” sound at the start. W is one of the youngest letters in the Modern Latin alphabet introduced through Vulgar Latin of the … and perhaps the “w” sound in One might literally come from a Double U.

    English borrows from a lot of European influences and it would be interesting to see its evolution in comparison to the evolution of these languages around the 15th century.

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