Romance languages are known to have lots of so-called pronominal verbs, which are always conjugated with a reflexive pronoun even though the action is not actually reflexive: for example, Spanish irse, acostarse, despertarse, imaginarse. Being new to German, I've noticed that German has some of these too, e.g. sich freuen, sich ansehen, but as far as I see they're simply called "reflexive". I gather that Slavic languages have them too.

My main question is: is this a single phenomenon? That is, are Romance pronominal verbs and these other "reflexive" verbs in other language families the same underlying phenomenon, or is there some fundamental difference among them?

Also: are there any cross-linguistic studies about this pseudo-reflexivity? Is it found outside Romance-Germanic-Slavic, or even outside Indo-European?

  • The thought that reflexive means there being an object that is also the subject, is a bit narrow technically (implying that it is in fact a transitive verb usable non-reflexively). ich freue mich = I enjoy myself is such an example. I hope someone finds a nice formulation.
    – Joop Eggen
    Nov 24 '17 at 13:45

These verbs are very typical in Indo-European languages in general and indeed exist in Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. This has to do with working with semantic roles like agent, patient, source etc. and you will find similar classes of verbs in old IE languages like Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Latin, where they are not connected with reflexive pronouns but instead assume medio-passive form (and exist in it only without having active form - this is called verba deponentia).

Both reflexive and passive constructions are used for de-agentisation, i.e. the verb is there but the agent of the verb is typically out of focus and omitted.

With the reflexive and ancient deponent (i.e. medio-passive only) verbs, you will often find that their meaning is typically also somewhat devoid of agent - sich freuen will have a subject but that subject is not actively happy by his own doing but typically it is just an experiencer. The same with Czech smát se or ancient Greek mainesthai - the subject is doing the action (laughter, madness) but not from his own volition, he is mostly experiencing it.

Of course there is most likely no objective need to mark this, as evidence by English, where you do not have these verbs and where even the very notion of real reflexivity is getting erased (cf. "I am warming up" and "I am warming up dinner") but if you already use these means for regular de-agentive constructions, by analogy they may spread to verbs whose semantics feels reminiscent of this.

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