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The 'impersonal' pronoun in Germanic and Romance languages seems to come from one of two paths:

Cognate with the word for 'man'

Cognate with the word for 'one' (number)

  • PIE: *óynos
    • German: einer
    • Latin: ūnus
      • Spanish: uno
      • Asturian: ún, unu

Is the English impersonal pronoun 'one' derived from the English word for the number, or from French on (as suggested by the OED)?

  • 3
    Why the downvote? Both top voted comments on the current meta thread say that etymology questions like this are fine for this SE: linguistics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1838/… – ukemi Mar 21 at 14:59
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    Most probably because of that guy. Don't take it personally, I think this community is pretty fed up by now. Have a +1 to counter it. – Wilson Mar 21 at 16:07
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    Here is what the OED actually has to say about the etymology of 'one' as a pronoun: "The use as an indefinite generic pronoun (sense C. 17), which replaced me pron.2, men pron. in late Middle English, may have been influenced by Anglo-Norman hom , on , un , Old French, Middle French on (12th cent.; mid 9th cent. in form om ; French on ; ultimately < classical Latin homō : see homo n.1), though this is not regarded as a necessary influence by some scholars." – Mark Beadles Mar 21 at 19:39
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    ...so the OED's claim is less that is was derived From french on so much as potenially influenced by it. – Mark Beadles Mar 21 at 19:40
  • Well, one has to wonder in the first place, why \ainaz went to one, while a ~ an, Nl. een, Ger. ein- went a different way, supposedly from the same root. – vectory Mar 22 at 6:08
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For posterity, I am copying the content of Mark Beadles' comment to an answer. It seems there is no consensus among etymologists as to whether there was French influence in its development:

The use as an indefinite generic pronoun (sense C. 17), which replaced me pron.2, men pron. in late Middle English, may have been influenced by Anglo-Norman hom, on, un, Old French, Middle French on (12th cent.; mid 9th cent. in form om; French on; ultimately < classical Latin homō: see homo n.1), though this is not regarded as a necessary influence by some scholars.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition (1989)
  • @ukemi Don't know about Spanish, but in Italian, uno can be used as an impersonal pronoun. There are alternative constructions, mainly one with "si" which resembles a reflexive verb, and English impersonal one sounds natural when you translate it into uno only in certain contexts, but still. – LjL Jun 20 at 16:19
  • @LjL yep it's the same in Spanish, with uno and se. – ukemi Jun 20 at 16:20

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