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English: unless (conj.)
mid-15c., earlier onlesse, from (not) on lesse (than) "(not) on a less compelling condition (than);" see less. The first syllable originally on, but the negative connotation and the lack of stress changed it to un-.

French: à moins que = sauf si.

Spanish, Portuguese a menos que

Italian a meno che

The above substantiates the same semantic shift to mean "if not" in at least 4 languages,
from the prepositional phrase

  • Sp, Pt, It a, Fr à, En *un ← "on" (preposition) +
  • less (adverb) +
  • than (comparative preposition)

Does 'un ← on' in 'unless' mean the same as à and a in 2 and 3?.

  • The explanation under point one answers the question in the affirmative, doesn't it? – Draconis Jun 15 '19 at 22:42
  • Make that five languages, Italian a meno che is the same too. Just saying. There is also a meno di which can be followed by a noun phrase instead of a subclause, still usually indicating a potential event that would falsify the main clause. – LjL Jun 16 '19 at 16:09
  • @LjL Thanks. Added! – NNOX Apps Jun 17 '19 at 3:40
  • 1
    You've chosen 3 latin derived languages to compare with English, that's a bit risky. However, there's a similarity which has always striken me: Néanmoins in French and Nonetheless in English, they seem a complex construct for conveying the same semantic, and happen to be extremely similar in construction. So maybe there are some questions to wonder about the sense usage and ethymoloy of moins/less. Which could lead to your questioning about a/on. – Stephane Rolland Jun 17 '19 at 13:02
  • Nonetheless could be modeled on the French Néanmoins. (none the less). Both English and French have been agglutined. but the French has lost the "le". – Quidam Dec 8 '19 at 13:36
1
+50

It's the word "moins/less/menos/meno" that is central here, not the preposition.
So, let's see it first:

Latin: minus/minor (except for "less"), that has a meaning of cutting something, to remove something.

Unless in Latin is "nisi", so it's not the source of the expression I think.

"à moins que", is literally "if you remove that". "à" meaning something like "in this case".
(I don't say it means that literally), in the situation you remove that.

I have no idea if one of those languages modeled the expression of the other one, as the use of the "a" in Spanish is maybe unusual (at least, as far as my level of knowledge in Spanish tells me), either they come from a proto-expression giving this same structure, or one of those languages modeled the expression in the other ones.

The "a" is not a private "a" here, it's absolutely not the same thing that the "un-" like in unless (at least, the modern way to understand it, not the etymology)

So, let's check the unless etymology now:

Unless has a different logics that in those Romance language.

Unless -> old form Unlesse -> older form Onless, is a short for "on a less compelling condition than"

According to this link: https://www.etymonline.com/word/unless

So, we basically compare "a/à" and "on" (not "un").

In this case, in this particular context (and not always), yes, they have the same meaning.

On this case, if, on this condition (we would use "in" not "on", but it's the literal meaning) , à ce prix, à cette condition....

It's all about being positioned "on" a case.

English is not my language, I could try to be clearer in my explanations with a little help.

| improve this answer | |
  • Explanation of conjunctions from similar looking propositions is unetymologic, for what it's worth, as every language teacher in spe on the individual language SE sites will say that prepositions especially as prefixes were downright meaningless, have to be learned by heart, not by reason, and cannot be translated directly. The respective questions show that people try to associate some mental idea about the meaning; native speakers frequently disagree about these or are uncertain, but not always. All the while, there is a fleeting difference between conjunctiins and prepositions. – vectory Dec 9 '19 at 18:39
  • That is, I'm trying to say your conclusion is far from certain. The question arises most frequently only when starting to write formally, whereas speakers just repeat what they hear. This is of course even more severe when trying to write about how people are writing. In that sense, a few evidences of early Old English use that should have inexplicably changed [when?] really does not impress me. – vectory Dec 9 '19 at 18:42
  • What was my conclusion? It was not about etymology, but about usage. – Quidam Dec 11 '19 at 8:05
  • "it's the literal meaning"--no, it's not, but congratz for the 50 pts per default – vectory Dec 11 '19 at 9:23

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