Thursday, May 5, 2016

Secret Origins: One

It’s been a while since we’ve done zero and I figured since we’ve just had a month of words, why not a number?

One is an ancient number, perhaps the oldest recorded one. A bone found in the Congo from twenty thousand years ago has notches that indicate counting by ones. One itself has had some interesting forms over the centuries. The Greeks actually used α'. Seriously, an alpha with a quote mark. It was also a curvy Arabic line, the Roman Numeral I, a single dot for the Mayans, a — in Chinese, and a kind of squished N in Hebrew. Most of those make sense as they’re just single lines or dots, and apparently Greek numbers used to be just the letters of their alphabet with a quote mark at the end (their 2 for example is β').

The 1 that we use however is first recorded India in the fourth century CE, but had actually been in use for quite a while before that. It moved through the Arabic world, which changed and modified all of the Indian number symbols. One was a — in ancient India, but a 1 in Arabic, and believe me, it’s the least changed. You’ll see when we eventually get to the other numbers. Anyway, from there the numeral system spread across northern Africa, entering Europe by way of Spain.

Now for the word. One showed up in the early thirteenth century from the Old English an, one or single, and is also the origin for an. And a for that matter. The article, not the letter (yes, they’re really separate things). Seriously. Anyway! Before Old English, it was the Proto Germanic ainaz and earlier, the Proto Indo European oi-no-, one or unique. So because one is single, it is one. Okay. Sure.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Fascinating stuff. I do think we take words and numbers for granted so it's nice to breathe and look at them in more depth - if only for a moment of time :) Thanks for sharing.

  2. I think I have one headache coming on!

  3. One is a lonely number...
    It's still AD not CE to me.

  4. It's hard to imagine a time when we didn't count with numbers.

  5. Wait... How do notches indicate counting by ones? I mean, they do, but they also don't. I mean...
    Look! That's just inconclusive. I mean, how can you tell someone how many "one" notches you have if you don't have other numbers to go with it?

  6. It's interesting how we learned to count. Alpha prime does make a certain sort of sense. (Alpha for the letter, and prime is what you call that hash mark in the exponent spot.)

  7. Wow. That's really interesting. I've been learning a new language and it's challenging because the word for one of something in a group, and the word for some of something in the group are the same. So it's hard to know what the heck is going on sometimes.


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