In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reciprocals

  • Introduction
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources and Questionnaires
  • Historical Studies

Linguistics Reciprocals
Ekkehard König
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0209


The notion of reciprocity (“mutuality”) and its syntactic encoding by reciprocal constructions, marked by each . . . other or one . . . another in English, relates to the argument structure of predicates, or more specifically to the question of co-reference and disjoint reference of arguments, and is part of a system of contrasts also including (prototypical) transitivity and reflexivity. Semantically, reciprocal relations involve a plurality of participants (|A| ≥ 2), they are symmetric (A1 ↔ A2) for referentially disjoint participants, in contrast to transitive relations (A → B) and reflexive ones (A → A), and require that two semantic roles (e.g., both Agent and Patient) are assigned to each participant (e.g., Donald and George attacked each other). Reciprocal constructions with two participants have simple paraphrases with co-ordinations and a reversal of arguments (Donald attacked George and George attacked Donald) or with adverbials (Donald attacked George and vice versa/the other way round). Such simple paraphrases are no longer possible, however, as soon as more than two participants are involved. In that case a variety of “mutual relations” (strong versus weak, completely versus partially symmetric, simultaneous versus sequential, types versus tokens of participants, etc.) may be expressed. Due to their complex semantic properties, reciprocal constructions arguably denote the most complex event type to be expressed in most languages by regular grammatical means, such as a single clause. Reciprocity is not only of interest to linguists. This phenomenon (frequently discussed under the terms “altruism,” “exchange,” etc.) also lies at the root of social organization and ethics and has fascinated philosophers, social scientists, psychologists, and biologists for many centuries.

Edited Collections

During the last few years the results of major research projects on reciprocals, carried out in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) at the University of Melbourne (“Reciprocals across Languages”), at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics, as well as jointly in Berlin and Utrecht (see Berlin-Utrecht Reciprocals Survey, cited under Reference Resources and Questionnaires), have been published as collective monographs. Including as they do a large number of major contributions to the analysis of reciprocity from different perspectives and in a wide variety of languages, these collections make the most important studies in this domain easily accessible. Moreover, each of these sources contains an introductory survey discussing theoretical and methodological issues and summarizing previous work. Evans, et al. 2011 presents the results of fieldwork on languages hardly ever described before, and the five-volume Nedjalkov 2007 is the result of a large-scale research project carried out over a period of fifteen years and involving forty collaborators. The collection of articles Frajzyngier and Curl 1999 and the collective monograph König and Gast 2008 present selections of papers presented at conferences in Boulder and Berlin, respectively.

  • Evans, Nicholas, Alice Gaby, Stephen Levinson, and Asifa Majid, eds. 2011. Reciprocals and semantic typology. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    A collection of articles on reciprocal constructions in rarely described languages (+ English). Specialists for specific areas compare a sample of twenty languages spanning every continent, fifteen language families, and including a sign language. The data were elicited through video clips, as described in the second chapter of the book. Theoretical and methodological aspects of the project are discussed in the two introductory chapters.

  • Frajzyngier, Zygmunt, and Traci S. Curl, eds. 1999. Reciprocals: Forms and functions. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    A collection of articles in a variety of languages given at a conference on reflexivity and reciprocity in Boulder, Colorado, including both descriptive and theoretical contributions.

  • König, Ekkehard, and Volker Gast, eds. 2008. Reciprocals and reflexives: Theoretical and typological explorations. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    A collection of papers on reflexivity and reciprocity in variety of languages, given at a conference that brought together typologists, generative grammarians, and formal semanticists. The collective monograph contains some foundational studies and overviews widely quoted over the previous ten years.

  • Nedjalkov, Vladimir P., ed. 2007. Reciprocal constructions. 5 vols. Typological Studies in Language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    In addition to the typological generalizations of Volume 1, Volumes 2–4 contain in-depth analyses of reciprocal constructions and markers in more than forty languages from all continents, carried out on the basis of a questionnaire developed by the editor and presented in Volume 1. Volume 1 presents the theoretical, conceptual, and terminological foundations of the cooperative work published in the other volumes, together with generalizations on various aspects of its results.

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