reflexive pronouns

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The reflexive pronoun (also: Reflexiv [um]; back-referencing pronoun ) is a pronoun that differs from the personal pronoun in that it refers to units that are particularly close, usually in the same (partial) sentence. For example, the reflexive pronoun itself and the personal pronoun it differ in the following example in that it can only refer to the subject of the same subordinate clause (the reference to the same individual is marked in the example by a common index "i"):

a) Ottoi bemerkte, dass Karl ihni im Spiegel beobachtete   (= Gegenstand der Beobachtung ist Otto)
b) Otto bemerkte, dass Karli sichi im Spiegel beobachtete (= Gegenstand der Beobachtung ist Karl)


In German, the use of reflexives is relatively free: while it is typical that they refer to preceding subjects , they can also be related to other parts of a sentence, as long as the reference word is higher than the reflexive in the grammatical hierarchy. This hierarchy is (in descending order): subject → indirect object → direct object → prepositional object. For example, a reflexive can be linked to an indirect object as a direct object.


Wir zeigten ihmi sichi selbst im Spiegel
Ottoi sprach mit sichi selbst
Wir klärten Annai über sichi selbst auf

A reflexive pronoun within a noun phrase can refer to the genitive in the same noun phrase:

Annasi Stolz auf sichi selbst

Forms of the reflexive in German

Present German

Unlike the personal pronoun , the German reflexive pronoun has no number and gender characteristics . It only occurs in the 3rd person and can function as a dative or accusative. In all cases that can not be covered by the form itself , the corresponding form of the personal pronoun occurs , i.e. for 1st and 2nd person as well as for genitive, for example:

Ich habe bemerkt, dass dui dichi im Spiegel beobachtest. (vgl.: Ich beobachte dich. )
Der Dichteri war seineri selbst überdrüssig geworden. (vgl.: Wir waren seiner überdrüssig.)

historical development

The German form sich is originally the accusative form and only extended to the dative form at the end of the early New High German era. The old Germanic dative form (according to the law it would read sir from primitive Germanic * siz , analogous to me / you ) had previously been lost in German; Therefore, the personal pronoun him / her initially also stood in for the reflexive function in the dative . This usage is typical of early New High German and can be found, for example, in Luther's translation of the Bible :

Aber Daniel setzete ihm vor in seinem Herzen,
          (= nahm sich (Dat.) vor)
daß er sich mit des Königes Speise (…) nicht verunreinigen wollt.

This status is also preserved in some German dialects, for example in Bavarian:

Da Petrus roat't a wenk ban eahm selba, fuatgehn, denkt er eahm, loß ih n doh nit.
„(Der) Petrus überlegt ein wenig bei sich selber (wörtl.: ihm selber), fortgehen, denkt er sich (wörtl.: ihm), lasse ich ihn doch nicht.“

A full declination of the reflexive can still be found in Icelandic today .

More functions

In German, as well as in other languages ​​such as French or Latin , the reflexive pronoun is also an integral part of certain verbs without really having a relational meaning, for example remembering, meeting up, being bored .

In the German language, the reflexive pronoun is often used synonymously with reciprocal pronouns like each other , e.g. B. in the phrase they wash themselves . This creates an ambiguity so that this sentence can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand as they wash each other and on the other hand as they wash themselves . The exact interpretation must then be inferred from the context.

A special feature of the use of reflexive pronouns in some languages ​​is also the logophoric use (see there for details).

Reflexive pronouns in other languages

In the Slavic languages there is a distinction between pronouns and reflexives also in possessives , so that cases can be distinguished where there is ambiguity in German. For example, Bosnian , Croatian, and Serbian allow distinctions such as the following:

Ana je dala Fatimi svoju knjigu. → "Ana gave Fatima her book reflexively ." (Ie "Ana gave Fatima Ana's book.")
Ana je dala Fatimi njenu knjigu. → "Ana gave Fatima her non-reflexive book." (Ie "Ana gave Fatima Fatima's book.")

Depending on the language, the possible range of the reference for a reflexive pronoun can vary. The definition of this limit is an object of attachment theory in linguistics .

Web links

Wiktionary: Reflexive pronouns  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. The second and third example from: Duden - The Grammar. 8th edition. 2009, p. 274.
  2. Daniel 1,8 in the Luther Bible, 1534
  3. ^ Theo Vennemann: The Germanic languages ​​and the typology of reflection . In: Sprachwissenschaft , 40-1 (2015), pp. 3–44. PDF file p. 9, footnote 6