In grammar, a reflexive verb is, loosely, a verb whose direct object is the same as its subject; for example, "I wash myself". More generally, a reflexive verb has the same semantic agent and patient (typically represented syntactically by the subject and the direct object). For example, the English verb to perjure is reflexive, since one can only perjure oneself. In a wider sense, the term refers to any verb form whose grammatical object is a reflexive pronoun, regardless of semantics; such verbs are also more broadly referred to as pronominal verbs, especially in grammars of the Romance languages. Other kinds of pronominal verbs are reciprocal (they killed each other), passive (it is told), subjective, idiomatic. The presence of the reflexive pronoun changes the meaning of a verb, e.g. Spanish abonar to pay, abonarse to subscribe.
There are languages that have explicit morphology or syntax to transform a verb into a reflexive form. In many languages, reflexive constructions are rendered by transitive verbs followed by a reflexive pronoun, as in English -self (e.g., "She threw herself to the floor.") English employs reflexive derivation in-idiosyncratically, as in "self-destruct".
In the Romance languages, there are non-emphatic clitic reflexive pronouns and emphatic ones. In Spanish, for example, the particle se encliticizes to the verb's infinitive, gerund, and imperative (lavarse "to wash oneself"), while in Romanian, the particle procliticizes to the verb (a se sp?la "to wash oneself"). Full reflexive pronouns or pronominal phrases are added for emphasis or disambiguation: Me cuido a mí mismo "I take care of myself" (mismo combines with the prepositional form of the pronoun mí to form an intensive reflexive pronoun).
The enclitic reflexive pronoun sa/se/si/si? is used in Western and South Slavic languages, while Eastern Slavic languages use the suffix -sja (-). There is also the non-clitic emphatic pronoun sebja/?, used to emphasize the reflexive nature of the act; it is applicable only to "true" reflexive verbs, where the agent performs a (transitive) action on itself.
The Slavic languages use the same reflexive pronoun for all persons and numbers, while the Romance and North Germanic ones have a special third person pronoun that cliticizes and the other Germanic ones do as well without cliticizing. This is illustrated in the following table for the word "to recall" (e.g., Je me souviens means "I recall", Tu te souviens means "You recall", and so on).
|1st person||Je me souviens||Nous nous souvenons||Jeg lægger mig||Vi lægger os||Ja se sje?am||Mi se sje?amo||Jag lägger mig||Vi lägger oss|
|2nd person||Tu te souviens||Vous vous souvenez||Du lægger dig||I lægger jer||Ti se sje?a?||Vi se sje?ate||Du lägger dig||Ni lägger er|
|3rd person||Il se souvient||Ils se souviennent||Han lægger sig||De lægger sig||On se sje?a||Oni se sje?aju||Han lägger sig||De lägger sig|
In all of these language groups, reflexive forms often present an obstacle for foreign learners (notably native speakers of English, where the feature is practically absent) due to the variety of uses. Even in languages which contain the feature, it is not always applicable to the same verbs and uses (although a common subset can be generally extracted, as outlined below). For example, the Spanish reflexive construct "se hundió el barco" ("the boat sank") has no reflexive equivalent in some Slavic languages (which use an intransitive equivalent of sink), though for example Czech and Slovak do use a reflexive verb: "lo? se potopila"/"lo? sa potopila". Reflexive verbs can have a variety of uses and meanings, which often escape consistent classification. Some language-common identified uses are outlined below. For example, Davies et al. identify 12 uses for Spanish reflexive constructions, while Vinogradov divides Russian reflexive verbs into as many as 16 groups.
Martin Haspelmath also has a useful distinction between the reflexive types mentioned below, which he calls introverted reflexives, and so called extroverted reflexives, which are used for verbs that are usually not reflexive, like hate oneself, love oneself, hear oneself, and kill oneself. Some Indo-European languages have a different reflexive morpheme for extroverted reflexives. For example:
|French||Pierre se lave (Verb: se laver)||Pierre lave le chat|
|Spanish||Pedro se lava (Verb: lavarse).||Pedro lava el gato.|
|Italian||Pietro si lava.||Pietro lava il gatto.|
|Catalan||En Pere es renta.||En Pere renta el gat.|
|Galician||Pedro lávase.||Pedro lava o gato.|
|Serbo-Croatian||Petar se kupa.||Petar kupa ma?ku.|
|Slovene||Peter se umiva.||Peter umiva ma?ko.|
|Polish||Piotr si? k?pie.||Piotr k?pie kota.|
|? ? a.|
Pyotr moyet kota.
|German||Peter wäscht sich.||Peter wäscht die Katze.|
|Danish||Peter vasker sig.||Peter vasker katten.|
|Swedish||Peter tvättar sig.||Peter tvättar katten.|
|Lithuanian||Petras prausiasi.||Petras prausia kat?.|
|Petras prausia save.|
|English||Peter washes himself.||Peter washes the cat.|
|? ? .
Piter rohetz et hahatul.
"Reciprocal" reflexive denotes that the agents perform the mutual actions among themselves, as in English constructions using "each other". In most cases, the transitive verbs are also used.
|French||Marie et Pierre s'embrassent||Marie embrasse Pierre|
|Spanish||María y Pedro se besan (Infinitive: besarse).||María besa a Pedro.|
|Italian||Maria e Pietro si baciano.||Maria bacia Pietro.|
|Catalan||La Maria i en Pere es fan un petó.||La Maria fa un petó a en Pere.|
|Galician||María e Pedro bícanse.||María bica a Pedro.|
|Serbo-Croatian||Marija i Petar se ljube.||Marija ljubi Petra.|
|Slovene||Marija in Petar se poljubita.||Marija poljubi Petra.|
|Polish||Maria i Piotr si? ca?uj?.||Maria ca?uje Piotra.|
|Russian|| ? ? .
Mariya i Pyotr tseluyutsya.
| ?e? ?a.|
Mariya tseluyet Petra.
|Danish||Maria og Peter kysser hinanden.||Maria kysser Peter.|
|German||Maria und Peter küssen sich (/ küssen einander).||Maria küsst Peter.|
|Lithuanian||Marija ir Petras bu?iuojasi.||Marija bu?iuoja Petr?.|
|English||?ary and Peter kiss [each other].||Mary kisses Peter.|
In modern Scandinavian languages, the passive (or more properly mediopassive) voice is used for medial, especially reciprocal, constructions. Some examples from Danish are
(The hypothetical form **kysses (kiss each other) is not often—if ever—seen in Danish; however, it will likely be understood by most native speakers, indicating that the mediopassive voice is still at the very least potentially productive in Danish. An expression like "de kysses uafladeligt" (they kiss each other all the time) could very well be used for humorous purposes.)
"Autocausative" reflexive denotes that the (usually animate) "referent represented by the subject combines the activity of actor and undergoes a change of state as a patient":
|Spanish||Pedro se ofendió.|
|Italian||Pietro si offese.|
|Catalan||En Pere es va ofendre.|
|Serbo-Croatian||Petar se uvrijedio.|
|Slovene||Peter se je u?alil.|
|Polish||Piotr si? obrazi?.|
|German||Peter ärgerte sich.|
|English||Peter became/was offended.|
"Anticausative" reflexive denotes that the (usually inanimate) subject of the verb undergoes an action or change of state whose agent is unclear or nonexistent.
|Spanish||La puerta se abrió.|
|Italian||La porta si aprì.|
|Catalan||La porta es va obrir.|
|Galician||A porta abriuse.|
|Serbo-Croatian||Vrata su se otvorila.|
|Slovene||Vrata so se odprla.|
|Polish||Drzwi si? otworzy?y.|
|German||Die Tür öffnete sich.|
|English||The door opened.|
"Intransitive" forma (also known as "impersonal reflexive" or "mediopassive") take the intransitive verbs with omitted agent. In Slavic languages, practically "the only condition is that they can be construed as having a human agent. The applied human agent can be generic, or loosely specified collective or individual." The grammatical subject is either omitted (in pro-drop languages) or dummy pronoun (otherwise). Thus, those verbs are defective, as they have only the 3rd person singular (masculine or neutrum, depending on language) form.
|Spanish||Aquí se trabaja bien.||Se dice que...|
|Italian||Qui si lavora bene.||Si dice che...|
|French||Ça se vend bien.||Il se murmure que...|
|Catalan||Aquí es treballa bé.||Hom/Es diu que...|
|Galician||Aquí trabállase ben.||Dise que...|
|Serbo-Croatian||Tu se radi dobro.||Smatra se da...|
|Slovene||Tu se dobro dela.||Razume se, da...|
|Polish||Tu pracuje si? dobrze.||Uwa?a si?, ?e...|
Zdes' khorosho rabotayetsya.
|Lithuanian||?ia gerai darbuojasi.||Sakosi...|
|German||Es arbeitet sich hier gut.||Man sagt sich, dass...|
|English||[People] work well here.||It is considered that...|
In many cases, there is a semantic overlap between impersonal/anticausative/autocausative constructs and the passive voice (also present in all Romance and Slavic languages). On one hand, impersonal reflexive constructs have a wider scope of application, as they are not limited to transitive verbs like the canonical passive voice. On the other hand, those constructs can have slight semantic difference or markedness.
"Inherent" or "pronominal" (inherently or essentially) reflexive verbs lack the corresponding non-reflexive from which they can be synchronically derived. In other words, se is an inherent part of an unergative reflexive or reciprocal verb with no meaning of its own, and an obligatory part of the verb's lexical entry":
|Spanish||Pedro se arrepintió.||Pedro se ríe[N 1]||María y Pedro se separaron.[N 1]||Pedro se queja.|
|Italian||Pietro si pentì.||[N 2]||Maria e Pietro si separarono.[N 1]||Pietro si lamenta.[N 3]|
|Catalan||En Pere es va penedir.||[N 2]||La Maria i en Pere es van separar.[N 1]||En Pere es lamenta.|
|Galician||Pedro arrepentiuse.||Pedro laméntase.|
|Serbo-Croatian||Petar se pokajao.||Petar se smije.||Marija i Petar su se rastali.||Petar se ?ali.[N 3]|
|Slovene||Peter se kesa.||Peter se smeji.||Marija in Petar sta se raz?la.||Peter se prito?uje.[N 3]|
|Polish||Piotr si? pokaja?.||Piotr si? ?mieje.||Maria i Piotr si? rozstali.||Piotr ?ali si?.[N 3]|
| ? ? ?.
Mariya i Pyotr rasstalis'.
|? ?e.[N 3]|
|Lithuanian||Petras atsipra.||Petras juokiasi.||Marija ir Petras i?siskyr?.[N 1]||Petras skund?iasi.[N 1]|
|English||Peter repented.||Peter laughs.||Mary and Peter parted.||Peter complains.|
A reflexive verb is a verb which must have both an object and a subject, but where, in some context, both the object and the subject are identical. In Inuktitut, this situation is expressed by using a specific verb but by affixing a non-specific ending to it.
I just shot the polar bear
I just shot a polar bear
I just shot myself
In Guugu Yimithirr (a member of the Pama-Nyungan language family) reflexivity can combine with past (PST), nonpast (NPST), and imperative (IMP) tense marking to form the verbal suffixes: /-dhi/ (REFL+PST), /-yi/ (REFL+NPST) and /-ya/ (REFL+IMP) respectively. See the following example where the verb waarmbal, a transitive verb meaning 'send back' is detransitivized to mean 'return' taking only one nominal argument with an agentive role:
Nyundu wanhdha=wanhdhaalga waarmba-aya?
2sg+NOM when return.REFL+NPST
When will you return?
The same valence-reduction process occurs for the transitive wagil 'cut'
Don't cut yourself!
In each of these cases, the reflexively-inflected verb now forms a new stem to which additional morphology may be affixed, for example waarmba-adhi 'returned' may become waarmba-adhi-lmugu (return-REFL+PST-NEG) 'didn't return.' As with many Pama-Nyungan languages, however, verbs in the lexicon belong to conjugation classes, and a verbs class may restrict the ease with which it can be reflexivized.
These reflexive morphemes are largely employed for expressing reciprocality as well; however, in cases where there is potential ambiguity between a reflexive and a reciprocal interpretation, Guugu Yimithirr has an additional means for emphasizing the reflexive (i.e. by the agent upon the agent) interpretation: namely, the /-gu/ suffix upon the grammatical subject. See for example the following contrast between the reciprocal and reflexive:
The two of them hit each other.
The two of them hit themselves.
yara? bulari bum-iri
DEM two-S hit-RECP+PST
Those two were fighting
As with Guugu Yimithirr, Kuuk Thaayorre, a Paman language, has some ambiguity between reflexive and reciprocal morphemes and constructions. Ostensibly, there are two suffixes /-e/ and /-rr/ for reflexivity and reciprocality respectively; however, in practice it is less clear cut. Take for example the presence of the reciprocal suffix in what should seem like a simple reflexive example.
pam thono tup ko'o-rr-r nhanganul watp
man one.NOM [ideophone] spear-RECP-PST.PFV 3SG.REFL dead
One man speared himself dead, whack!
Or the reverse wherein an apparent reciprocal assertion has reflexive morphology
They two collided with one other.
In actuality, the broader function of the reciprocal verb is to emphasize the agentivity of the grammatical subject(s), sometimes to directly counteract expectations of an external agent--as in the first example above. The combination of the reciprocal verb with the reflexive pronoun highlights the notion that the subject acted highly agentively (as in a mutual/symmetric reciprocal event) but was also the undergoer of their own action (as in a reflexive event where agentivity is backgrounded e.g. "I soiled myself").
Conversely, the reflexive verb can have precisely this function of backgrounding the agentivity of the subject and bringing the focus to the effect that was wrought upon the undergoer(s) as in the second example above.