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In Portuguese, the third person accusative pronoun se ("himself/herself/itself/themselves") can be used for four different purposes:

1.) Most straightforwardly, as a reflexive pronoun:

Mantém-se     forte
Keeps-himself strong
"He keeps himself strong"

2.) As a reciprocal marker:

Amam-se
Love-themselves
"They love each other"

3.) As a particle for subject indetermination:

Vive-se       bem  neste   país
Lives-oneself well in this country
"One lives well in this country"

4.) As a passivizing particle:

Vende-se     esta casa
Sells-itself this house
"This house is being sold"

How did this pronoun develop to fulfil such different functions? Also, is this unique to Portuguese or has it occurred in other languages as well?

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    If anyone thinks the interlinear gloss can be improved (which must be the case), feel free to edit it. – Otavio Macedo Mar 22 '12 at 14:03
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    I know that Spanish and French use "pseudopassive" se. It's an interesting type of grammaticalizationa, reflexive > middle – user483 Mar 23 '12 at 1:07
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    I believe Italian si can be used similarly. – Cerberus Mar 23 '12 at 5:01
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    Polish się '...self' has the same meanings. – kamil-s Mar 23 '12 at 9:25
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    It's interesting to me that this kind of construction exists in (at least some of) the Slavic languages too, which probably indicates that its origins are older than Latin. – user780 Mar 24 '12 at 4:09
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As I understand it this is an evolution from the PIE reflexive to a new mediopassive.

PIE is often reconstructed as having two voices, active and mediopassive. Classical Latin had separate verb forms in -r that marked the mediopassive. (This -r form was also found throughout Italoceltic, Tocharian, and Hittite.)

Separately, PIE *se- -> Classical Latin (sēsē, sibi, suī) was almost purely a reflexive marker, with some use as a reciprocal marker (e.g. inter sē).

As the Romance languages developed, the -r mediopassive became disused even for deponent verbs. I'm not confident why this happened; perhaps it was due to forms becoming homophonous. Anyway, with the loss of the old mediopassive a new form was adopted for the voice. The reflexive filled this role. In the daughter languages -> Fr, Es, Pt, Ro se, It si.

So in Portuguese, and many of the other Romance languages, the reflexive/reciprocal and mediopassive are formed using se. The "subject indetermination" and "passiving" functions you describe use se as part of this new "mediopassive"; i.e., indeterminate or impersonal subjects regarded as a middle voice.

EDIT: Miller (2010) has a treatment of this question in "The Mediopassive: Latin to Romance":

Reflexive sē forms replaced the ‐r forms in different structures at different times. The replacement began in the ergative verbs where ‘I sank myself’ had a bound anaphor in contrast to the lack of agentivity in the type ‘the ship sank itself’ , reanalyzed as an anticausative with reflexive merged in a projection for derived imperfectivity. Subsequently, the sē construction replaced the ‐r forms in certain other structures, and finally the middle and impersonal, but not the passive (within Latin, at least).

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  • Fascinating! I didn't know about middle and mediopassive voices. – Otavio Macedo Mar 23 '12 at 1:35
  • +1 Great answer. Two questions: 1. The Latin passive was rarely used to mark reflexivity; so isn't it better to call it "passive" rather than "mediopassive"? 2. Portuguese uses the past participle + a form of ser + por for passive sentences where there is an agent. The word "mediopassive" is normally used only where there is no passive voice, to encompass both middle and passive; but that is not really the case here, so wouldn't it be better to call what se does the "middle voice"? (Or possibly not a voice at all, as it is rather a particle with different functions.) – Cerberus Mar 23 '12 at 2:43
  • Another question: as you say, se filled the hole left by the Latin passive in indeterminate subjects (Otavio's 3) and agentless passives (4). But the passive-with-agent came to be expressed by ser + past participle; so do you have any idea why 3 and 4 did not come to be expressed by ser + past participle, i.e. why the Latin passive was split into se and ser + p.p. respectively along these lines in Portuguese (and I think Spanish and Italian too)? – Cerberus Mar 23 '12 at 2:51
  • @Cerberus, in Portuguese, the agentless passive voice can also be expressed by ser/estar + past participle. So, the example (4) could be rephrased as "Esta casa está sendo vendida". Or, as in Encontrou-se a solução / A solução foi encontrada, "The solution has been found". – Otavio Macedo Mar 23 '12 at 12:15
  • @Cerberus Although the Latin mediopassive was not used generally for reflexivity, it was used in middle senses (anticausatives and other unaccusatives), e.g. vulnus clauditur wound-nom close-3sg-R "the wound heals". – Mark Beadles Mar 24 '12 at 1:15

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