‘Or’ seems basic and universal, but where does it actually come from? According to typologists (Giacalone Ramat and Mauri, 2011) not all languages have a lexical ‘or’. Moreover, languages that do have ‘or’ reveal a number of distinct etymological sources, predominantly markers involving ‘irrealis’ (e.g., Question particles, ‘if’s, and dubitatives). Using synchronic data, mostly from English and Hebrew, my goal is to explain how (some) such markers could have evolved into ‘or’ expressions, defined as ‘alternativity’ markers (Ariel and Mauri, 2019). I will argue that or expressions evolve within discourse patterns representing incipient constructions. These patterns reflect salient strategies that speakers use to convey ‘alternativity’, initially by inference. Eventually, the irrealis marker is reinterpreted as an ‘alternativity’ marker: an ‘or’. The multiple evolutionary paths for ‘or’, I will further argue, support Ariel and Mauri’s (2019) claim that or’s core meaning is ‘alternativity’ — a procedural, rather than a truth-conditional (‘inclusive’) meaning.
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