Happy Birthday Word Stories, you are one year old! But how old is one? Because in terms of etymology, one is actually a lot older than one. I mean, to be pedantic, it’s really at least 6,000.
The word one in English goes back to the 13th century and the days when Old English was still around. Its ancestor was the Proto-Germanic *ainaz, which is why one looks pretty similar to Dutch een and German ein. From there, we can go back even further to Proto-Indo-European, which is thought to have been spoken some 6,000 years ago, and the root *oi-no, meaning ‘one, unique’. This root also became oinos in Greek and unus in Latin and from Latin came the Spanish uno and French un. So that explains why so many European languages have some kind of ‘un’ sound to represent one.
In fact, our ‘won’ pronunciation is a bit of a black sheep in the family. One was originally pronounced the way it still is in only. Our change in pronunciation has made the origin of only opaque, but when you know about the sound change, it’s obvious that only is really one-ly, as in ‘uniquely’.
The now standard ‘won’ pronunciation started in the South East of England in the 14th century and became the norm by the 18th century. We can deduce this because in the mid-16th century William Tyndale, a Gloucester man, worked on the first English versions of Bible texts to be translated directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, which were also the first to be mass-produced by the printing press, and he spelled one as ‘won’.
The use of one as the posh person’s pronoun is unrelated. Latin used homo, ‘man’, which became on in French. Presumably, on became one in English by analogy with the existing word.
Admittedly, Word Stories is actually a bit older than one now since the first post was published on June 16 and I’ve been too busy to realise. Still, if you fancy a flashback, check out the very first post: dictionary.