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Does anyone have a theory, or knowledge about the origin of the particle ли?

Why does it act as a question particle? Where did it come from, etc?

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  • 1
    from или? then there's a second question: where does или come from? )))) – Баян Купи-ка Sep 8 '16 at 20:35
  • 2
    @БаянКупи-ка Actually it's the other way round. или is и+ли. – Nikolay Ershov Sep 8 '16 at 23:31
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    It exists in many Slavic languages, so it comes from too dim and distant past. And theories... well, look into Vasmer dictionary: ли. – Matt Sep 9 '16 at 5:36
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    ли occurs as part of several other compound conjunctions beside или, meaning that the proposition that или is another such compound requires less assumptions than the proposition that ли is a pared-down или (нет). – Nikolay Ershov Sep 9 '16 at 11:26
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    Don't know if it's relevant, but there is also the Czech -li particle, which, as it seems to me, means 'if' or 'when': Chceš-li mír, chystej se na válku - 'If you want peace, prepare for war'; Žiješ-li v Římě, žij po římsku - 'Living in Rome, live the way Romans live'. – ach Sep 9 '16 at 13:53
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(How it works in questions)

Whatever the origin of the particle is, it adds the sense "или не/нет" (whether or not). This could explain its function in embedded questions: it helps to simplify an expression by excluding the complete form of negated alternative.

Он не знал, придёт ли [= или не придёт, придёт или нет] сегодня его брат.

(He didn't know if his brother would come /or wouldn't come/ that night.)

In an actual question the sense "или... не" can be also (along with the mentioned simplification) used to express additional doubt about a judgment or about some its detail:

А знает ли он об этом [или всё-таки не знает]?

(But does he really know about it?)

А так ли это [или всё-таки не так]?

(Is it really so?)

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It is cognate of English let, comes from PIE root lee̯- meaning allow, idle, lazy, inactive. English words "left", "leave", Russian лень "lazyness" are of the same root.

Compare PIE forms lee̯nos "quiet", lee̯u̯os "left"

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