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I know that meaning 3 originates from used here as the semantic component (Yellowbridge exhibits this more clearly below). But how did 3 semantically shift to 1, 2? Their lexical categories all differ!

Please answer separately for 1 and 2, because even in English, 1 and 2 don't mean the same. Their lexical categories all differ!

  1. but; however; nevertheless
  2. only
  3. to think; to contemplate
  4. Alternative form of (wéi, “to be”).

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Their lexical categories all differ!

That is common in Chinese, especially in Classical Chinese.

How did 3 semantically shift to 1, 2?

Sometimes the different meanings of a character are not evolved from the same origin. In ancient times, people often designated a character with a certain meaning merely for the reason that it shares the sound of the oral language of that meaning, and so is the case.

By the way, meaning 1 & 2 were fixed over 2200 years ago (before Qin Dynasty), and there are some other characters that is interchageable with 惟 under certain meanings (listed in bold font).

Let me list a relatively comprehensive entry of 惟(meanings still common in modern Chinese will be intalicized):

Original meaning:

v.

:凡思(to think),即浮泛之思,寻常之思。

e.g. 惟念圣意,谛听民声。

:是(be)

e.g. 不变惟何?《天演论》

:顺遂,听从(to obey, to submit)

e.g. 惟惟诺诺=唯唯诺诺

希望,愿请(hope sb. to do sth.)

e.g. 万惟留心!《英烈传》

在于(lie in)

刑惟善察,谋惟善断。

adv.

唯,维:只有,单(only)

e.g. 惟吾德馨《陋室铭》

唯,维发语词,希望(wish)

e.g. 先王无流连之乐,荒亡之行,惟君所行也。《孟子》

conj.

即使,虽然(even if,though)

e.g. 惟信亦为大王不如也。《史记》

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