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Using “one” for “a” or “an”

Q: At a drugstore here in Hawaii we often hear over a loudspeaker the word “one” used in place of “a” or “an.” For example, “We need ONE manager in the photo department.” Is this pidgin English or does it have a basis in historical English?

A: It’s not surprising that a person living in Hawaii would hear “one” used in place of the indefinite article “a” or “an.”

This regionalism is characteristic of what linguists call Hawaii Creole English, and at least one scholar has attributed it to the influence of Cantonese.

We should mention that the dialect you’re hearing isn’t properly a pidgin—a dialect that has no native speakers, like a trading jargon used for business purposes.

Instead, linguists call it a creole because it has expanded, stabilized over time, and become a native tongue learned by children. So what was once a pidgin developed into a creole about a century ago. 

The roots of Hawaii Creole English extend back into the late 18th century, as Hawaii began to emerge as a trading and plantation center.

We won’t attempt to explain the development of this dialect, a subject much debated by linguists over the past 40 years.

It’s enough to know that many tongues besides native Hawaiian have been spoken on the islands in the last two centuries—the South Seas jargon of early sailors plus many varieties of pidgin English brought by traders and plantation workers from China, Japan, Europe, and other Pacific islands.

The feature you’ve noticed—the use of “one” as the indefinite article—was first recorded in Hawaii in 1838, according to the Australian linguist Jeff Siegel.

In his paper “Substrate Influence in Hawaii Creole English,” published in the journal Language in Society in 2000, Siegel notes that “the use of one as an ‘indefinite article’ was one of the features of Chinese Pidgin English (CPE) brought to Hawaii.”

“Pidgin Hawaiian, spoken by most Chinese in Hawaii in the 19th century, also used the numeral one (akahi) as an indefinite article (in contrast to Standard Hawaiian),” Siegel writes.

He traces this usage to Cantonese, which “optionally uses the word yat ‘one’ ” in indefinite noun phrases.

“It is likely that this feature of Cantonese accounts for the origin of the corresponding use of one in CPE [Chinese Pidgin English],” he writes, “and it could have been responsible for reinforcing its continued use in Hawaii as well.”

Two earlier scholars, John E. Reinecke and Aiko Tokimasa, have also written about “one” in place of “a” or “an” in Hawaii.

“In careless speech, one is used as the indefinite article,” they wrote in “The English Dialect of Hawaii,” published in the journal American Speech in 1934.

You also asked whether the Hawaiian usage has any basis in historical English.

As a matter of fact, there was a time when “one” served a double purpose in our language, too—it was both the number and the indefinite article.

That changed in the Middle Ages when the uses of the word were separated and the article (“a,” “an”) was split off.

You might even say that English is unusual in this respect.

In many languages the word for “one,” as John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins points out, “is used as the indefinite article, but in English the numeral one has become differentiated from the article a, an.”

“An,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, originated as an unstressed form of “one,” and “a” developed in the 1100s as the form used before a consonant.

But the differentiation between “an” and “a” didn’t become universal for quite some time.

“An” was still used before “y” and “w” (as in “an woman”) until the 1400s, Chambers says. In addition, “an” was “used before h in a stressed syllable (an hundred) down to the 1600s and is still affected occasionally before h today,” Chambers adds.

“One,” meanwhile, has three general senses in modern English:

(1) It’s an adjective meaning either the number or undivided (“one apple” … “with one voice” … “we are one”). 

(2) It’s a pronoun meaning a single person or thing (“one never knows” … “I’ll take that one” … “one of us”).

 3) It’s a noun for the number (“odds of four to one” … “one o’clock” … “chapter one”).

However, the adjective “one” is also sometimes used colloquially, the OED says, “as a more emphatic substitute for the indefinite article.”

Examples of this emphatic usage include “He’s one tough customer” and “It’s one hell of a blizzard.”

But nowadays “one” isn’t used in the ordinary sense of “a” or “an,” except in regional pockets.

The OED says it’s chiefly found in the English spoken in India, the Caribbean, and parts of the United States—namely South Carolina, Georgia, and, as you already know, Hawaii.

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