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I know other words like 如果 also provide the "if", but why would 要是...的话 mean "if"?

An example sentence:

要是你喜欢汉语(的话),你该听中国的音乐。

If you like Chinese, you should listen to Chinese music.

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It means that as it does, I can't answer you why. As in English, "as" and "provided" can mean "if", why? Sorry, I don't mean to criticise anyone or anything. I just feel it's hard to give you a logic reason behind it. –  Huang Jan 11 '12 at 12:44
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You could also use"如果...的话","要是...","...的话" to mean "if...","in the case of..." –  Huang Jan 11 '12 at 12:46
    
dunno if this is a totally scholarly gloss on it, but to me it makes perfect sense in quasi-classical, (as do many constructions i find.) 'wanting that'...'condition'... for me it's perfectly easy to see the logic behind it. and don't think that chinese education these days does not include hefty doses of tang poetry. –  magnetar Jan 11 '12 at 21:25
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3 Answers

If you find these kinds of things puzzling, I suggest you try and download 现代汉语八百词. It gives meanings and uses of a lot of these constructions. As Huang says, these constructions mean just what they mean.

On page 594 of 现代汉语八百词 it says (the page number will depend on the edition you download):

要是 yào.shi

[连]表示假设;如果。

a) 用于前一小句。

~看见《汉英词典》,替我买一本 | ~他不去,你去吗?

b) ‘要是...’后可加‘的话’。‘要是...的话’可用在后一小句。

~有人问的话,说我在老马家 | 坐船去好,~来得及的话

c) 要是 + 名。

~别人(=如果换了别人),这事不一定能办成 | 老同学聚会真不容易,~去年,咱们还聚不齐呢!


Meaning is roughly:

yào.shi

[Conjunction] expresses hypothesis; if.

a) used in first clause.

If you see a "Chinese-English Dictionary", buy one for me | If he doesn’t go, will you go?

b) 的话 can be added after 要是. '要是…的话' can be used in the second clause.

If anyone asks, tell them I’m at Ma’s place | It’s good to go by boat, if you can make it.

c) 要是 + noun. If someone else (= if it were someone else), this matter could not necessarily be accomplished | It’s not easy for old classmates to get together, if [it were] last year, we couldn’t have done it!

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Would you mind to include translations? You could use system notes. If you want, I can format it for you. –  Alenanno Jan 11 '12 at 15:28
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Great answers by Terry and Bathrobe.

In this instance, when I bumped into the same thing, I thought of it as the English

Let's say that..

In that way "say" gets a nice and logic connection with "话".

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Unfortunately, one of the things about languages is that they are "arbitrary". They basically just pick a group of sounds and declare, "This is what that means."

In English, for example, a butterfly is not flying butter, even though the two smaller parts one can see in that word have those meanings. In the same way, it doesn't help much to think that one can break everything in Chinese down and get logical explanations for everything. Language is just that way (otherwise computers would have taken over our function a long time ago!)

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What you say is not actually exact. "Butterfly" is a "flying butter". It comes from "butter + fly", "perhaps from the cream or yellow color of common species, or from an old belief that the insects stole butter." from the NOAD, or in the Online etymology dictionary. There isn't a person who decides what means what for everything, or better, it's more complicated, actually. Many things change according to use, it seems too reductive to explain it the way you presented it. –  Alenanno Jan 11 '12 at 15:31
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Language in use is not about etymology. If an etymology is not commonly known -- known by the vast majority of the speakers of the language -- it is merely a pastime for linguists to argue over. Language is arbitrary. Why does the sequence of sounds /bUtr/ mean "butter"? At the end of the day, all language is arbitrary. Linguistics 101, my friend. –  Terry Waltz Jan 14 '12 at 14:15
    
Sorry but that is not exactly an objective method of measurement. The fact that most speakers of that language don't know an etymology, doesn't make that etymology wrong. It just makes that etymology unknown to most speakers, that's it. Linguists don't guess etymologies, unless they are hard to tell, of course. "Butter" history (backwards) is English > Old English > Latin > Greek (this etymology is not 100% attested). –  Alenanno Jan 14 '12 at 14:22
    
But it does make the etymology of very little use to the average person learning or using the language today. It matters very little what a word meant hundreds of years ago. It matters what it means now, and how the morphemes behave now. Current usage is what makes language a vital thing, not the past, though the changes over time are an interesting matter for study and discussion. –  Terry Waltz Jan 17 '12 at 3:22
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