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I've encountered more or less in many different languages. Why is this idiom so widespread? In a few other languages such as Italian it's "more or less", but in Albanian it's "less or more".

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  • Well, it's (a) a useful marker of degree of accuracy, which comes up in any culture; and (b) something that can be cobbled together easily from leftover pieces of grmmatical plumbing, namely two contrasting chunks of a comparative construction -- something every language has lying around -- held together with duck tape of logical disjunction (OR). It doesn't have any object, and it gets accompanied by a handwave in most languages. The handwave is probly the thing to study, not the expression -- the expression is just a tinkertoy.
    – jlawler
    May 22 '14 at 20:41
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    I see what you mean, basically it's an expression of two extremes, being on the 'safe side' you would be inclusive rather than exclusive. I hadn't thought about the handwave motion...
    – Marin
    May 22 '14 at 20:49
  • Like bye-bye, yea big, and c'mon, the hand gesture is an emblem of the speech event, and can substitute for it in silence, if the context is understood. David McNeill is the one to read about gestures and language.
    – jlawler
    May 22 '14 at 21:16
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    It's probably a result of calquing, a.k.a. loan translation: that is, a phrase that's borrowed from one language into another by word-for-word translation. This is a very common phenomenon. (For another example, compare I have no idea, Je n'ai aucune idée, No tengo ni idea.) Presumably "more or less" originated in one European language and then spread into others.
    – TKR
    May 22 '14 at 22:22
  • Can anyone add some tags to this questions? I'd suggest "Idioms", "Claque"
    – oyd11
    Sep 30 '16 at 13:00
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Good question, I was making a list of languages that use the 'less-or-more' form, after first noticing it in Paul-Wexler's lecture, before his lecture, I assumed "less or more" is the more common form, as I'm fluent in Hebrew (where it's "less or more") and English (where's it's "more or less"), but I also spoke (not fluently) at the time two other languages where it happens to be "less or more" (Polish and Dutch), only after hearing Wexler - I've checked and seen "more or less" - is "more common". Wexler claimed the "less or more" version is a "Persian calque" and mentioned Sorbian and Polish do it too, maybe it's true through older records. Since then - I've found that -

  1. Serbo-Croatian - accepts both (manje-više / više-manje) ; (where as in other languages inverting the order sounds very awkward...)
  2. Albanian, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Polish, Sorbian, Lithuanian, Dutch, Frisian, Afrikaans, Basque - say "less or more" (correct me if I'm wrong about any of these)
  3. All sounds "kindof chinese" in a way. (Mandarin way to phrasing adjectives), Wexler in his lecture - mentioned a lot of Silk-Road related borrowing for such expressions, since they are used a lot in trade.

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