Why does the word si have at least two separate meanings? How did it come to acquire them?

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    What would you answer if we asked you why the English word so sometimes mean "in order that" and sometimes "as"? – Laure Mar 13 '17 at 18:22
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    Do you have sentence examples? – Frank Mar 13 '17 at 18:38
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    @Laure To go off on a musical tangent, I suppose sometimes "si" could also mean "so[l]" when we're singing off-key! – Papa Poule Mar 13 '17 at 18:47
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    @PapaPoule Quite so! – Laure Mar 13 '17 at 18:49
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    @Laure while that was my reaction as well, Luke made a valid question/answer out of this by interpreting the question as "By what separate sequences of etymological descent did this one word come to have these two distinct meanings?" which actually makes for a very interesting question imo. I edited it slightly to bring it more in line with that. – temporary_user_name Mar 13 '17 at 22:53

Si "if" is from Latin "if". Straightforward enough.

Si "so", "so much", and even "yes" is from Latin sīc "in that way". A vestige of that older meaning can be seen in the French ainsi "in that way", originally a compound in + si.

The connection between "in that way" (or "thus") and the other two meanings, "yes" and "so much", is linguistically interesting and not a phenomenon unique to French. An intuitive look at conversations involving these words gives an idea of why these concepts are related.

Note: This isn't to deny that French might have borrowed alternate meanings from other languages. I'm not trying to figure out in which language or at which stage the expansion of meanings took place — it just matters that they took place somewhere along the line.

For the connection between "thus" and "yes", the mere fact of restating something is often taken as an affirmation. In fact, some languages don't even have a word for "yes". In Ancient Hebrew, for example, to indicate that what someone said was correct, one repeated a key word from their utterance.

The reply in this passage (and many like it) is generally translated "Yes" in English:

Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, my enemy?" He said, "I have found."
(1 Kings 21:20a, literal translation)

Now consider an exchange like this:

— "N'est-ce pas qu'elle est belle ?" Isn't she beautiful?
— "Si."
[Etymological meaning] Thus. / As (you've said).
[Modern meaning] Yes.

In a pragmatic analysis, you might say that we understand repetition as affirmation simply because there isn't another reason why the person would repeat the utterance. Actually, even in English, I often hear someone repeat the last couple of words the previous speaker said to signal their agreement.

Interestingly enough, in standard French, the affirmative meaning of si replaces the "in that way" aspect to the point of rejecting a statement in the negative!

— "Tu n'es jamais allé en France ?" You've never been to France?
— "Mais si !" In fact I have!

As for the other overlap between "thus" and "so much", it likely has a similar development: stressing the particular nature of an object or manner in which an action was done serves as intensification. This is also true of tel and tellement:

On ne mange pas une telle chèvre. One doesn't eat a goat that is like that.

Jamais je n'ai vu une telle chèvre ! I've never seen such a goat!

In the second sentence, "such a goat" seems to imply that the goat is extraordinary in some aspect. Perhaps it's even more omnivorous than most. But the connection becomes clearer when you see that the derived word tellement has more or less only retained the intensifying sense:

Cette chèvre est tellement belle ! That goat is so beautiful!

And in fact, as Laure points out, the same development took place in English; a certain usage of "so" carries the meaning "as, in that way, thus":

Make it so.
If you don't do it just so, it won't work.
Oh, he's a li'l feller about so high (gestures).

This has evolved into mere intensification:

That goat is so beautiful!

Perhaps, to cite pragmatics again, it's because an unqualified "thus" offers little other interpretation. Vague usage, which qualifies a great deal of excited human speech, often leads to the blurring or slipping of definitions. In fact, "that" in the sense of "to that degree" is yet another example:

Oh, it's not that cold out.

How cold? It doesn't matter exactly. All that counts is that its mention implies that it's noteworthy, which likely means on the extreme end of the spectrum.

Incidentally, the field of semantics covers some interesting research on parallel developments in different languages. What comes to mind right now is the non-academic book Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis. He looks at a few languages and observes that in each of them, "wit" and "villainy" seem to overlap ("craftiness"), as do "perception" and "judgement" ("sense"), and likewise "the natural world" and "everything" ("nature"). The reason I bring it up is because certain concepts are naturally related in human experience, even if we aren't always consciously thinking of the relation, and hence you get words with surprisingly consistent polysemy.

  • You're a very good addition to FL&U, I must say. – temporary_user_name Mar 13 '17 at 22:54
  • Interestingly enough, in standard French, the affirmative aspect of si replaces the "in that way" aspect to the point of denying a statement the way it was posed. Usually the response would be mais si to reduce the ambiguity. – DepressedDaniel Mar 13 '17 at 23:24
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    @Aerovistae Thank you. :) I worry sometimes that I don't make enough reference to established resources since I seem to have come into whatever knowledge I have in quite a different way than the well-established people here. I'm sure I'll get used to using them... meanwhile, I hope that my "general linguistics education slowly degenerating into layman knowledge" style at least provides a unique angle on some questions. Also, thanks everyone for the corrections. – Luke Sawczak Mar 14 '17 at 0:29
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    I'm hearing Saussure in the distance in the last paragraph :-) – Frank Mar 14 '17 at 4:22
  • @Frank I'll accept any recommendations of his work on the subject! – Luke Sawczak Mar 14 '17 at 4:59

It seems like 'si' use as yes comes from neighbouring European countries. I live in canada, where there's been a french population for over 400 years and I've only heard European French people saying this.

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    You're touching on a third valid use of "si" in French (one that perhaps should be included in the OP's question), but unless I'm missing something, the question seems to be asking about two other uses of "si" that are causing him issues. – Papa Poule Mar 13 '17 at 18:22
  • But I don't think this third use case comes from neighbouring countries. We have had si as an answer to some question forms forever, nothing to do with the Spanish si, for example. Si Lulu's answer. – Frank Mar 13 '17 at 18:37
  • @Frank This use of si has already been discussed on FL, it comes from Latin, and French like Italian, Spanish and a few others have lots of Latin roots. – Laure Mar 13 '17 at 19:00

In most cases, "si" means if, but like Justin said, it can also be used to mean "yes", but only to answer a question that was asked in a negative form. For example: "Tu n'as pas mangé? Si, j'ai pris un sandwich sur la route." vs. "Tu as mangé? Oui, un sandwich sur la route".

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    OP is not asking about "yes" as Papa Poule has already pointed out. And it can also mean "so" (as in "it's so big!") as OP. – Laure Mar 13 '17 at 18:33

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