Reading Henry's question about 了 below, I thought I would look up 了。


You will have to enter 了。


To my mind, a child with no arms, or its arms cut off, is 'unfinished' or 'incomplete' not '完成'.

How did 了 acquire a meaning of 完成?

  • btw, on the Q do you mean 了字?
    – Mou某
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 0:08
  • No, I was just comparing the 2 characters. You have to draw 了 to draw 子。
    – Pedroski
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 9:28

3 Answers 3







了 means 尦 [ ㄌㄧㄠˋ | liào ].


尦 means the shanks cross each other while walking. Sometimes female models walk in this way.


尦 means the rear shanks cross each other when an ox is walking.


了戾 means one or two strands of a matter are twined, bound and not straight.

紾 [ ㄓㄣˇ | zhěn ]:扭轉;拗折。 to twist; to bend.  
縳 [ ㄓㄨㄢˋ | zhuàn ]:捲;束。 to wrap; to roll up; to bind; to tie up.  
戾 [ ㄌㄧˋ | lì ]:這裡是「彎曲」的意思。crooked; curved.





There is not the left-right stroke, which represents two arms, of 子c3.png. It interprets the shape of the character, not of the baby.



It depicts the twined and bound shape of two feet.


The characters of 了 class are derived from 了.
For example, 𡤼、孒、孑、孓. c4.png



Everything related to "collect and bind" is called 結. That is why we have the term, 了結. 《廣雅》 interprets 了 as "finish, end, stop, complete, etc.".

由以上的資料可知,「了」的本義是「尦」;而「尦」的意思是,行走時,小腿相互交叉。 這兩腳糾結的形狀,類似「收束」的樣子,因而被歸為「結」,由此才延伸出「了結」一詞。 而「結」有「終」、「止」、「成」之義,所以,「了」便有「結束、停止、完成」的意思。
From the above information, we can see that the original meaning of 了 is 尦. And, 尦 means that the legs cross each other when walking. The tangled shape of the two feet is similar to the appearance of 收束. It is thus classified as 結, and then extended to the word, 了結. Furthermore, 結 also means 終, 止 or 成, so 了 may mean "ended, stoped or complete".

In short, the original meaning of 了 is "to cross the legs when walking", and "finished or complete" is its extended meaning.

Due to my poor search skills, this is the only classical article I found, which connects 了 to 結束.

The following information is made by the modern people.









In my opinion, the credibility is lower if it is not explained based on the classical text.

  • This is a fantastic answer! Can you follow how the Ancients 'extended the meaning' from "to cross the legs when walking" to "finished or complete" ?
    – Gangosa
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 9:14
  • Thank you very much! Your search skills are amazing! I‘m trying to understand this. Talking of 'legs tied together' reminds me of Spain. People from rural areas often tie the 2 front legs of a horse, donkey or mule together. That way, the animal can be left alone, it can move, but cannot run away. Maybe the old Chinese did something like that? I think 禸 shows the hind legs and tail of an animal.
    – Pedroski
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 22:56
  • 禸[ róu | ㄖㄡˊ ] 原義是「獸足踏地」,引申為「踐踏」。 The original meaning is that the animals step on the ground with the feet. Its extended meaning is to trample.
    – hinen
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 10:23

說文解字 http://www.zdic.net/z/15/sw/4E86.htm


*象(symbolize) 其(it's) 足了(enough/satisfied) 戾(return) 之形(form of)

*symbolize 'satisfied and return'

When someone is playing, searching or gathering (whatever kids do), he would stretch his arm out.

After he satisfied and finished, he would return home, no longer stretching his arms. That's where the meaning of "completed /finished" for 了 came from.


First notice that 了 is a sign for perfective aspect(完成时貌).

Modern Mandarin Chinese doesn't have tense(时态), but rather aspect(时貌) instead. For more about this distinction, you can check this, which briefly listed several aspects in Mandarin Chinese including perfective aspect, imperfective aspect and experiential aspect.

For the question how 了 got the meaning "finish", you can check this paper. I will lists the highlights from the paper here:

  1. " 总起来说,我们还是拿《世说新语》作为根据,认为南北朝时代“终了、了结”义的“了”字虽然已经出现,但不常用,而且绝对没有“动+宾+了”句式。"

了 gets the meaning "finish" since the age of Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 420-589), though this use is rare. And 了 doesn't become the sign of perfective tense (verb+object+了) during this period.

  1. "从南北朝到唐代,“动十宾+完”这个结构的框子没变,填框子的词汇发生变化;“了”字在这框子里替代了其他词汇,变成最常用的完成动词;“竟、讫、已、毕”唐代还在用,但已渐被“了”字淘汰。这样就形成了变文和其他唐代文献中的“动+宾+了”。"

During the time between Northern and Southern Dynasties and Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the structure "verb+object+perfective aspect modal verb" persists. But the modal verb used in this structure is evolving over time. In Tang Dynasty, 了 become the most common modal verb for perfective aspect.

(The paper also mentioned that they cannot explain the origin of the structure "verb+object+perfective aspect modal verb" before the Northern and Southern Dynasty. There are two hypotheses trying to explain this. The first is that Chinese languages adopted this structure from Sanskrit, which is proposed by other researchers while this paper says it's not well supported. Another theory is that this structure evolves from more ancient Old Chinese grammar.)

The next is to explain how did the "verb+object+perfective aspect modal verb" evolved to "verb+perfective aspect modal verb+object" structure as in Modern Mandarin Chinese.

  1. "在唐代“了”字没往前挪以前,动词和宾语之间,已经有了个表示完成貌的成分,但这成分是许许多多用作结果补语的动词或形容词"

Before Tang dynasty, the structure is "verb+object+perfective aspect modal verb". But sometimes there are verbs or adjectives acting as complement to the verb of main clause. These verbs or adjectives have meaning related to perfective aspect.

  1. "从中唐到宋代,完成貌“了”字挪到动词和宾语之间的位置,挪前的原因有二:(1)动宾短语后面的“(不)得”和结果补语同时也往前挪;(2)放在动宾之间的结果补语早就表示完成貌"

Between middle Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty (960-1297), the perfective aspect modal verb 了 moves forward (to form the structure "verb+perfective aspect modal verb+object").

  • Thanks, I will read the pdf. I am very slow at reading Chinese, that will take a while!
    – Pedroski
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 23:02

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