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The character is used today for the meanings "or", "either", "maybe", and "perhaps". Historically, it had the meaning of "region", and it is this meaning that characters like 國 and 域 derive from.

This original definition is reasonable given its composition; it has the dagger-axe radical (戈), and according to 說文解字, it signifies someone guarding territory:

从囗从戈,以守一。一,地也。

Therefore, it's unclear how this character could get its modern meaning. How did this evolution take place?

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    I think the obvious guess is that it's a 假借字, borrowed for it's phonetic value alone. After all, "or" (like many grammatical words) is not well suited to drawing a picture of. – Stumpy Joe Pete Jan 29 '15 at 8:19
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without implying that the classical explanation is necessarily correct, worth noting that 康熙字典 thinks 或 was the original single character for 惑, before the latter character was introduced. Not hard to see how the grammatical usages of 或 could have evolved while it still also meant 惑. Or the other way around, the grammatical function could have been original, from which the meaning of 惑 is easily derived.

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    Another explanation is that 或 was the original character for 域 (and presumably the borrowing was phonetic? They're both "hok" in some dialects). Not sure which is more likely. – Stumpy Joe Pete Jan 29 '15 at 19:18
  • Yeah, it's not clear. kangxi et al has the better argument wrt semantics. – Master Sparkles Jan 29 '15 at 19:26
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Tuan Yu-Ts'ai (段玉裁, 1735-1815), a scholar of the Empire of Ch'ing (大清), wrote a book 說文解字注, namely Annotated 說文解字. He made a note on 或.

邦也。邑部曰。邦者,國也。

It is a state. 域, 邑, 邦, 國 are synonym. My Note : Ancient states were not bounded by borderline as today. Ancient people gathered and built fortified habitats and became city-states later. Between city-states there were vast pieces of unclaimed lands.

葢或國在周時爲古今字。古文衹有或字。旣乃復製國字。

There was no character 國 in ancient world. Only character 或 existed at the time.

以凡人各有所守。皆得謂之或。

The place and act of people defense are called 或.

各守其守,不能不相疑。

People of different places defense their own. They can't trust each other wholly. It is doubt 疑.

The outline of evolution of 或:

  1. 或 by its sharp means that people pick up weapons and defense a place.
  2. 或 describes the act, and the place people defense. Later refers to a city-state. (It is the origin of character 國 and 域, city-state / state / country / empire and territories)
  3. 或 describes the distrust between city-states.
  4. Distrust is doubt and uncertainty, the later meanings of 或. (It is the origin of 惑, doubt, puzzled, fooled)
  5. With doubt and uncertainty, there comes the meaning of "maybe" of 或.
  6. With "maybe", there comes the meaning of "or" of 或.

All evolution happened few thousand years ago.

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I have did some researches about the word "或" Modern meaning of this word are "or", "either", "maybe" and perhaps (或许)

  1. 弌 means taking the weapon (戈) and patrol around
  2. 囗 means country, or boundaries

Thus, combination of this 2 words means taking the weapon and patrol around your country/boundaries.

边境巡逻,遇到敌情,具有不确定性,故本字在读音为时,表示一种“或然性”、“概然性”的概念,由此从实词转为虚词,衍生出“或许”、“或者”这一类表示“不能肯定”的词汇。

While you patrol around your country, you have no idea when the enemy will strike. So it happens you have a feeling of uncertainty.

This uncertainty evolve into the use of this word "或"

"Maybe later the enemies will strike?" Who knows

  • If you think my answer is not useful. Please refer this baike.baidu.com/view/270002.htm – Raynoceros Jan 29 '15 at 8:43
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    This is IMO a very good answer. Downvoters care to explain why? – Wang Dingwei Jan 29 '15 at 12:30
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    @WangDingwei 会意字 (characters whose meanings are determined by the meanings of the component parts) are very rare. In order to argue that a character is a 会意字, you need to rule out more likely explanations (e.g., phonetic borrowing). This answer does not do that. Master Sparkles suggested a plausible derivation involving 惑. In 5 minutes of looking around on zdic, I was able to find another plausible derivation involving 域. – Stumpy Joe Pete Jan 29 '15 at 19:18
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    @StumpyJoePete OK, that makes sense. – Wang Dingwei Jan 30 '15 at 0:37
  • This is interesting. – NoobTW Jul 26 '18 at 6:14
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None of these explanations are legitimate. 或 [gwək] the character represents "defended territory," i.e. a walled city, or something slightly larger. Both 國 [kʷək] (state) and 域 [gwrjək] (domain) are later cognates. This much is undisputed.

或 [gwək] was also borrowed for its phonetic value only to write the distributive pronoun "some," which is thought to be a derivative of 有 [gwjəʔ] (exist) via -k affixation. This use of 或 is where you see things like "或人" (someone), "或时" (sometime) in Classical Chinese. It is from this that the modern particles for "or," "maybe," etc. arise.

  • 或许... = some allows that ... => grammaticalized to "maybe..."
  • 或(者)..., 或(者)... = some ..., some ... => grammaticalized to "either..., or..."

Basically the usage of the "some" 或 came to represent choice.

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