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Q&A

How did 'less than' semantically shift to mean 'if not'?

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The 4 languages beneath features the same semantic shift. The prepositional phrase

  • preposition : a, à, on → un +
  • adverb : less +
  • comparative preposition : than

shifted to signify 'if not'. What semantic notions underlie 'less than' and 'if not'?

  1. unless (conj.)
    mid-15c., earlier onlesse, from (not) on lesse (than) "(not) on a less compelling condition (than);" see less. The first syllable originally on, but the negative connotation and the lack of stress changed it to un-.
  1. à moins que = sauf si.
  1. a menos que means 'unless' in Spanish and Portuguese.
  1. a meno che means 'unless' in Italian.
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2 answers

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Disclaimer: I'm not a linguist and this answer is pure speculation.

I think the semantics are in fact the same.

If we look at the concept of existence, as humans typically evaluate things, in that non-existence is conceived to be less than existence it seems that we can readily derive that less than amounts to a rephrase of if not.

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It is generally easier to track down the earliest usages of a word, than the earliest usages of an entire phrase from which the word eventually developed. I'll offer two speculative answers; they are not mutually exclusive, because we are discussing developments over a vast time and space.

  1. In Middle English, the original meaning appears to have been a litotes. Instead of a literal "...unless X occurs", the phrase rather literally meant something like "unless anything at least as absolving as X occurs". You can equate "[on not] less of a reason than X" with "[on] at least as good a reason as X" here. However, either could have been a habitual litotes for simply "X" even in case of the original longer phrase.

  2. Someone might say finish their promise even in Modern English, made for tomorrow, with "unless the world ends tonight" or "unless I change my mind"; or end their factual statement with "unless I'm very mistaken". Such usage isn't attaching any specific conditions to the claim. It's rather used to indicate its general strength. Perhaps the modern core meaning of "unless" has evolved from mediaeval usage indicating the strength of a claim by naming an important example of its limits (whatever the perceived limits happened to be). Perhaps both those meanings were available in the past, and both are still available today; and only the centre of gravity of the meaning of the phrase has shifted, along with the phrase evolving to a single word.

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