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How old is this usage of 还是?I would like to understand how "also is" came to be used as "or".

3 Answers 3

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In the Late Middle Chinese to Early Mandarin transition, in the 10th century.

  1. 還 meaning "return" is attested in the Warring States Period, e.g. in the Zhuangzi 莊子.
  2. 復還/還復 was a common collocation in the Han dynasty for "again" in the sense of returning to a previous situation. By the 6th century CE, these were split up in a sort of co-ordinate construction.
  3. 還 becomes a "textual connective marker", roughly equivalent to "also, moreover" in the 7th century CE; it also gains a continuous "still", which is an extension of the "again" meaning (frequentative 'again' vs durative 'still'). This is attested e.g. in 杜甫 Du Fu's 《秋興·其三》.
  4. 還 co-occurs with this new copula 是 in various works in the 10th century, with the meaning "[it is] still this again". It is all part of the post-Middle Chinese transition of 是 from demonstrative to copula. However, 還 and 還是 for the disjunctive are still interchangeable. E.g. in the 祖堂集 Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall from the 950s, we have the sentence:

秀才唯獨一身,别有眷屬不?

Xiùcái wéi dú yì shēn, hái bié yǒu juànshǔ bù?

Are you (the student) alone[/single], or do you have a family?

  1. Further uses are attested in 15th and 16th century literature, with 還 gaining a "surprise"/"contradiction of expectation" meaning, a "comparative" use with 比, and a "moderate/marginal" use. These are all found in current Modern Standard Mandarin.

We know that this development of 還 from "return" to 還是 disjunctive "or" for questions occurred after various topolects split from Middle Chinese. 還是 is found with this meaning in Mandarin varieties, in Gan, and in at least some Wu varieties (Shanghainese); but in other varieties of Chinese, other lexemes are used (定係 in Cantonese, 也係 in Hakka [although apparently 還係 is also used], 故是 in Fuzhounese Min Dong, 抑是 across Min Nan). Some of these other words for "still" are attested alongside 還 in Middle Chinese.

However, we see that this "semantic pathway" of going from a word that means 'also, still' + a copula, results in this disjunctive 'or' across Chinese. The 還是 vs 或者 distinction of Standard Mandarin between "or" in disjunctive questions and in statements does not necessarily hold across all topolects.

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回到原處或恢復原狀

The basic meaning of 还 is 'return' e.g. 还乡 (return to one birthplace), 还债 (return one's owed --> repay a debt)

Extensions:

还 (return) --> also (go back and add more = in addition = also) Example: 斧头顶还能作锤头用 (the top of an ax can also be used as a hummer)

还 (return) --> still (return to the original position mean to remain the same = still Example: 还是不去好 (not to go is still better - compare to go)

还 (return) --> or (retreat from one statement and suggest another alternative = or Example: 是去还是不去? (to go or not to go?) -- 去 is the first choice, retreat from this suggestion and suggest 不去 as the alternative

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  • Hmmm, in putonghua 还 (return) and 还 (still/also) are pronounced differently. Is there any dialect in which they are pronounced the same? Is it common for the same word to be pronounced differently yet be considered to have the same meaning? I am still interested to know when 还是 came to mean "or", and if it is also used that way in other dialects.
    – Buddy L
    Mar 9, 2022 at 15:41
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It depends on the situation, and I think both are right, e.g.

Example one: 你喜欢苹果还是香蕉? (translation: Do you like apple or banana?)

Example two: 他是一个教师,还是两个孩子的父亲(translation: He is a teacher, but also a father of two children)

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  • Please read the question carefully...my question is not what 还是 means, or how it is used. My question is about how one meaning gave rise to the other meaning.
    – Buddy L
    Mar 9, 2022 at 15:37
  • my bad, I am just a native speaker not linguist, In my opinion, you can not just consider "还" to "also", "是" to "is". "还是" is a phrase, and the meaning depends on situation just like I have said
    – Allen
    Mar 10, 2022 at 8:48

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