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要 can mean both "to be going to" and "to want". So the sentence: 我要看电视 would probably mean "I want to watch TV", but "(明天)我要上学“ would probably mean "I am going to go to school". However, both sentences are potentially ambiguous.

My question is: did 要 originally mean "to want to" and then get extended to mean "going to"? This would be similar to the history of "will" in English. Or is it the other way around?

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My question is: did 要 originally mean "to want to" and then get extended to mean "going to"? This would be similar to the history of "will" in English.

Yes. In the The grammaticalization of 要 and the future cycle from Archaic Chinese to Modern Mandarin, LaBarge (2016) states in the abstract that:

Similar to English will, 要 yāo/yào has developed new functional meanings apart from its earlier semantic meanings of Compulsion and Volition, including deontic and future time uses.

These all have more disambiguated disyllabic versions: 将要 (future), 须要 (the deontic meaning), 想要 (the full verb "want").

The character 要 itself is the original character for 腰, a woman pointing to her midriff = "waist". It was also used in the meaning "to arrange a meeting, to invite", which is now taken over by 邀. These meanings are attested in the earliest works of Classical Chinese literature, such as the 詩經 Shijing / Book of Odes.

Several centuries later, when we come down to the Analects, we see the meaning of "compulsion" take over (Analects 論語 Xian Wen 憲問, 14):

雖曰不君,吾不信也。

Although it is said that (he) did not force his lord, I do not believe this.

This moves to the deontic meaning and the future meaning in the mid-Han dynasty. From the 漢書 Book of Han:

人生死,何為苦心

Man, being born, must/will die. Why should this pain [my] heart?

Of course, this process happened a good few centuries before English's shift, but also before the shift in Romance languages too (present tense of reflex of HABERE + verb infinitive -> new synthetic future tense).

Interestingly in Modern Mandarin, 想 contrasts with 要, in a sort of indirectness as a way of showing politeness, when making requests. The author suspects that 要's directness is a result of its grammaticalisation.

Note that the non-cognate 欲 in many Min varieties, derived from 發 (Tu 2017), is similar in its semantic field of "want" through to "deontic need" to its grammaticalised use as a future, although the futurity remains at the inchoative or imminent level ("about to").

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  • Fantastic! Many thanks. Would you say that the Min use of 欲 for imminent future is similar to putonghua's 准备?
    – Buddy L
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 19:35
  • @BuddyL That's a useful comparison for a learner, although 準備 vs 要 does contain several differences too.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented May 4, 2022 at 11:28
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我要看电视。
I wanna watch TV.
明天我要上学。
I gotta go to school tomorrow.

要:“腰”的古字
覀 :two-hands 𦥑 jú and (rem+ 交 jiāo waist)

Basic meaning of 要:necessary, essential; necessity

索取 ask, demand:要账、要价
希望 wish for,想 want:要强、 要好
请求request:她要我给她读报
重大 important,值得重视的 attach importance to:重要、要人 (VIP) 要领 纲要、 要言不烦
应该should,必须 must:须要 (must)
将(jiāng):将要 (shall, will)、快要 (soon)
如果,倘若:要是 (if)
表选择:要么 (either ... or) 要不、 (otherwise) 要不然

The old character shows two hands (not belonging to the woman I think) around a woman's waist, basic meaning "necessary".
What were those old Chinese thinking of?

My theory about this character: (note, all old characters show hands having only 3 fingers and everyone knows aliens only have 3 fingers on each hand)

Aliens came to ancient China to kidnap women, because their own females had become infertile! Those green devils!

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  • Quote:- "Aliens came to ancient China to kidnap women, because their own females had become infertile" Right and wrong. Right because China is the most populous nation on Earth, so Chinese females were and are extraordinarily fertile, or that the Chinese males were and are very potent. Wrong because according to Genesis 6.2 of the Bible -- New International Version -- "...the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose" So, it was the beauty of Chinese women, though called "daughters of humans" because "China" did not exist then. Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 5:17
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(明天)我要上学“ would probably mean "I am going to go to school", I consider this interpretation is incorrect.

Note that 要 has the following meanings - want, must, demand, request, ask.

明天我要上学 - here, 要 implies "a duty to, or, an obligation to, thus it should be interpreted as "Tomorrow I must/need to go to school.

However, 要 can be interpreted as "going to", such as in "我要寫功課了", for some task to be completed in the future. This interpretation seems an extension of the original usages/meanings, that only see modern time uses.

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  • I don't mean to be rude, but it seems that you have a habit of answering questions by just copying and pasting dictionary definitions of words that are relevant to the question.
    – Buddy L
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 19:31
  • @BuddyL Yes, I consider the dictionary to be the most recognized source, if not the most accurate, of the interpretation/explanation of a word and choose not to deviate from it unless I can provide the sources that hold convincing yet offer different meanings/uses of the word, and are worthy to mention. I found it is a troblesome trend that many people are not willing to open up the readily available learning source/tool - dictionary, but relying on the answers from the internet through a few key strokes.
    – r13
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 20:23
  • Every thing has its time & place, be it dictionary, Wikipedia, trendy social media usage, even one's long or short life experiences has a bearing. In any case on a public peer review platform such as this, informal checks and balances are at work, not mention our august group of Moderators who wield life & death powers. So, Live and let Live, meaning "one should tolerate the opinions and behavior of others so that they will similarly tolerate your own", (copied from an Internet dictionary :) ) Commented Apr 30, 2022 at 3:55
  • @WayneCheah I don't get your point. Do you mean I should express my own opinion rather than simply citing the meanings from the dictionary? If it is the case, what's wrong with the "habit of answering questions by just copying and pasting dictionary definitions of words that are relevant to the question. "?
    – r13
    Commented Apr 30, 2022 at 10:52
  • "Every thing has its time & place". I am actually commenting on @BuddyL comment about "...habit of answering questions by just copying and pasting dictionary definitions of words" There is a time to cite sources, there is a time to express an individual opinion, and of course both. Commented Apr 30, 2022 at 12:43

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