In This Article Reflexives and Reflexivity

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Structural Approaches
  • Functional and Pragmatic Approaches
  • Intensification and Emphasis
  • Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics

Linguistics Reflexives and Reflexivity
Dana Cohen, Anne Zribi-Hertz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0169


The term reflexive is applied by traditional grammarians to an event or situation that “reflects” (“rebounds”) upon its initiator, typically when some internal argument of the predicate co-refers with its subject (e.g., English John pinched himself or John saw himself in the mirror). In a slightly broader sense, reflexivity is a type of interpretation wherein two arguments of the same predicate co-refer, regardless of their structural positions in their clause; thus, I spoke to John about himself is viewed as semantically reflexive. From a cross-linguistic perspective, expressions used to express reflexive interpretations—reflexivity markers—typically include nominals denoting the human person or body, or inalienable parts of it (for example, Haitian Jan renyen tèt li, lit. “John hates his head” = “John hates himself”), and specialized reflexive pronouns (e.g., English himself, Russian sebja: Ivan ljubit sebja “Ivan loves himself”), which may grammaticalize into verbal affixes deriving reflexive verbs (for example, Russian myt’-sja, French se laver “to wash (oneself)”). Finally, reflexive interpretations, as defined above, may also be available with some ordinary personal pronouns (e.g., French Jean est fier de lui = “John is proud of him” or “of himself”). A crucial cross-linguistic generalization brought out by works on reflexivity is that the forms that may correlate in some contexts with reflexive readings, in the narrower sense defined above, are often associated, in other contexts, with interpretive effects distinct from reflexivity, such as valency or aspectual changes, intensification, subject affectedness, or subjective discourse perspective. Two approaches may thus be considered for the study of reflexives and reflexivity in one or several languages: (i) the research may focus on the expression of reflexivity in its narrowest semantic sense: how are reflexive interpretations signaled in a given language or in natural languages? (ii) the research may aim at identifying and linking together the different uses of forms available, among other things, as reflexivity markers. Option (i) leads us to consider reflexivity as a special case of co-referential or anaphoric relations. Option (ii) leads us to consider reflexivity as one among a set of semantic effects associated with a common “reflexive” morpology, and to try and understand how these different effects can arise from the same forms.

Reference Works

There is a vast body of literature on the topic of reflexivity, based on a myriad of languages, focusing on a wide array of constructions, and couched in various approaches. The reference works cited below provide informative presentations for researchers and advanced students, highlighting major issues and works. Everaert and van Riemsdijk 2005 provides a structural syntactic perspective, Huang 2000 provides a primarily pragmatic perspective, and Brown 2006 incorporates a wide range of approaches.

  • Brown, Keith, ed. 2006. Encyclopaedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. 14 vols. Oxford: Elsevier.

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    An extensive reference that includes concise introductory articles of relevant topics from a variety of approaches, such as binding theory (Asudeh and Dalrymple, Volume 2), anaphora, cataphora, exophora, logophoricity (Y. Huang, Volume 1), logophoric pronouns (von Roncador, Volume 7), and intensifiers (König, Volume 5).

  • Everaert, Martin, and Henk van Riemsdijk, eds. 2005. The Blackwell companion to syntax. 5 vols. Oxford: Blackwell.

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    An impressive collection that includes instructive overviews of several relevant topics, primarily from a structural perspective: binding theory (Reuland, chapter 9, Volume 1: 260–283), Icelandic logophoric anaphora (Reuland, chapter 33, Volume 2: 544–557), logophoricity (Reuland, chapter 38, Volume 3: 1–20), long-distance binding in Asian languages (Cole, Hermon, Huang, chapter 39, Volume 3: 21–84), long-distance binding in Germanic languages (Reuland, chapter 40, Volume 3: 85–108), and SE anaphors (Dobrovie-Sorin, chapter 56, Volume 4: 118–179).

  • Huang, Yan. 2000. Anaphora: A cross-linguistic approach. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A pragmatic account of anaphora from a neo-Gricean perspective. Includes an extensive overview of the major issues in the study of anaphora and critique of the major approaches, both formal syntactic and functional pragmatic. Topics include binding, long-distance reflexivization, and logophoricity. Fascinating cross-linguistic data from over five hundred languages.

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