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3.2.2.5. The reflexive middle construction
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Cornips (1994/1996) has shown that the three middle constructions discussed in the previous sections may appear in certain varieties of Dutch with the simplex reflexive zich. This is illustrated in Cornips' examples in (278). Later research suggests that these reflexive middle constructions are typically found in Limburg; see Barbiers et al. (2005: Section 4.3.7.1). The construction is also common in German; cf. Steinbach (2002).

Example 278
a. Het boek verkoopt zich goed.
regular middle?
  the book  sells  refl  well
b. Disse stool zit zich lekker.
adjunct middle
  this chair  sits  refl  nicely
c. Het slaapt zich goed in dit bed.
impersonal middle
  it  sleeps  refl  well  in this bed

Note that we ignore here the discussion in Section 3.2.2.2, sub IIE, which suggests that examples such as (278a) are in fact not regular middles, but unaccusative constructions; the main issue is that reflexive middle constructions of the type in (278) are categorically excluded in Standard Dutch, as shown by (279).

Example 279
a. Het boek verkoopt (*zich) gemakkelijk.
regular middle
  the book  sells    refl  well
b. Deze stoel zit (*zich) lekker.
adjunct middle
  this chair  sits     refl  nicely
c. Het slaapt (*zich) lekker in dit bed.
impersonal middle
  it  sleeps     refl  nicely in this bed

The examples in (280) show, however, that Standard Dutch has a syntactically complex reflexive middle construction. This construction is sometimes referred to as the laten- or AcI-middle construction because it is based on the permissive verb laten'to let', which is normally able to assign accusative case to the subject of its infinitival complement (accusativus-cum-infinitivo); cf. Section 5.2.3.4. The object of the verb embedded under laten'to let' surfaces as the subject of the construction, while a simplex reflexive coreferential with it seems to take its original place. The infinitival clause normally contains an evaluative modifier of the gemakkelijk type with an implied experiencer.

Example 280
a. Jan wast de trui.
  Jan washes  the sweater
a'. De trui laat zich gemakkelijk/moeilijk wassen.
  the sweater  let  refl  easily/with.difficulty  wash
  'The sweater is easy/difficult to wash.'
b. Peter bewerkt het hout.
  Peter  treats  the wood
  'Peter carves the wood.'
b'. Het hout laat zich gemakkelijk/moeilijk bewerken.
  the wood  lets  refl  easily/with.difficulty  treat
  'The wood is easy/difficult to carve.'

It seems that the term AcI-middle is actually a misnomer given that the subject of the infinitival clause can never be overtly realized in these reflexive middle constructions. This is shown in (281); the regular laten-construction differs from the reflexive middle construction in that its infinitival clause optionally contains an accusatively marked subject, which is obligatorily left implicit in the latter. For that reason we will simply use the term reflexive middle construction.

Example 281
a. Marie laat [clause (Jan) de trui wassen].
  Marie lets   Jan  the sweater  wash
  'Marie lets Jan wash the sweater.'
b. De trui laat [clause (*Jan) zich gemakkelijk wassen].
  the sweater  lets     Jan  refl  easily  wash

The following subsections discuss a number of properties of the reflexive middle construction, subsection I clears the way for the discussion by pointing out that reflexive middles can readily be confused with other types of reflexive laten-constructions, subsection II then begins by comparing the meaning of the reflexive middle to that of the regular middle, subsection III continues with a brief discussion of the implied experiencer introduced by the evaluative modifier and the implied agent of the infinitival clause, subsections IV and V discuss respectively the verb embedded under laten and the evaluative modifier, subsection VI concludes with a brief discussion of the simplex reflexive.

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[+]  I.  Other reflexive laten-constructions

This subsection shows that reflexive middles can easily be confused with other types of reflexive laten-constructions. Before we start our discussion of the former, we therefore must find some means to determine whether we are really dealing with reflexive middles. Let us begin by providing some general information about Dutch AcI-constructions. The primed examples in (282) show that the agent of the infinitival clause need not be realized as an accusative noun phrase, but can also be left implicit or be expressed by an agentive door-phrase.

Example 282
a. De meester liet [de kinderen het schoollied zingen].
  the schoolmaster  made   the children  the school.anthem  sing
  'The schoolmaster made the children sing the school anthem.'
a'. De meester liet [het schoollied (door de kinderen) zingen].
  the schoolmaster  made   the school.anthem   by the children  sing
b. De ouders hoorden [hun kinderen het schoollied zingen].
  the parents  heard   their children  the school.anthem  sing
  'The parents heard their children sing the school anthem.'
b'. De ouders hoorden [het schoollied (door hun kinderen) zingen].
  the parents  heard   the school.anthem   by their children  sing

A problem for our discussion of reflexive middles arises when we want to express that the object of the embedded verb is coreferential with the subject of the AcI-construction; in that case the object is realized as the simplex reflexive zich and the agent of the embedded verb cannot be realized as an accusative noun phrase. We first illustrate this by means of the examples in (283) with the perception verb horen'to hear'. The indices in (283a) show that if the object is a weak referential pronoun it cannot be coreferential with the subject of the higher clause; this example also shows that the subject of the infinitival verb can be optionally realized as an accusative noun phrase. Expressing that the object of the infinitival verb is coreferential with the subject of the higher clause requires the object to be realized as a weak reflexive; the two (b)-examples in (283) show that in that case the subject of the infinitival clause can be expressed by means of an agentive door-phrase, but not by means of an accusative noun phrase.

Example 283
a. Jani hoorde [(Marie) ʼm*i/j bespotten].
  Jan  heard    Marie  him   ridicule
  'Jan heard Marie ridicule him (≠ Jan).'
b. Jani hoorde [(*Marie) zichi bespotten].
  Jan  heard       Marie  refl  ridicule
  'Jan heard someone ridicule him (= Jan).'
b'. Jani hoorde [zichi (door Marie) bespotten].
  Jan  heard   refl   by Marie  ridicule
  'Jan heard Marie ridicule him (= Jan).'

The problem that arises with respect to our discussion of the reflexive middle is that we see the same set of facts for AcI-constructions with permissive laten'let': the referential pronoun in (284a) can only be used if the cat did not hamper Peter in caressing some other individual (e.g. by allowing Peter to caress one of its kittens); expressing that the cat allowed Peter to fondle it itself requires that the simplex reflexive zich be used, which makes it impossible to express the agent of the infinitival clause by means of an accusative noun phrase.

Example 284
a. De kati liet [(Peter) ʼm*i/j aaien].
  the cat  let    Peter  him   caress
b. De kati liet [(*Peter) zichi aaien].
  the cat  let    Peter  refl  caress
b'. De kati liet [zichi (door Peter) aaien].
  the cat  let   refl     by Peter  caress

When we now add an adverbial phrase to the (b)-examples in (284), as in (285a), we derive a structure that closely resembles the reflexive middle construction in (285b). In fact, we cannot even be sure that (285b) is a reflexive middle given that adverbs like gemakkelijk can also be used in a wide range of non-middle constructions.

Example 285
a. De kati liet zichi graag aaien.
non-middle construction
  the cat  let  refl  gladly  caress
  'The cat liked to be caressed.'
b. De kati liet zichi gemakkelijk aaien.
reflexive middle?
  the cat  let  refl  easily  caress
  'It was easy to caress the cat.'

In order to ensure that we are dealing with reflexive middle constructions, we can appeal to the fact that the nominative subject of an AcI-construction with permissive laten must be agentive and volitional: its referent must be able/willing to allow (or to prevent) the activity denoted by the infinitival verb. This means that conclusions drawn from examples with animate subjects should be looked upon with suspicion; by avoiding the use of animate subjects potential ambiguity can be prevented.

[+]  II.  Meaning

Reflexive middle constructions occasionally have regular middle counterparts with more or lesss the same meanings. The examples in (286) show, however, that the two constructions impose somewhat different selection restrictions on their subject: subjects of reflexive middles can readily be definite and thus refer to entities in the domain of discourse, subjects of regular middles, on the other hand, normally refer to a kind or some physically present entity as is clear from the fact that they are preferably generic or demonstrative; definite subjects like de trui'the sweater' or het hout'the wood' are normally restricted to contrastive contexts.

Example 286
a. De trui laat zich gemakkelijk wassen.
reflexive middle
  the sweater  let  refl  easily  wash
  'The sweater is easy to wash.'
a'. Zoʼn/Die/?De trui wast gemakkelijk/moeilijk.
regular middle
  such.a/that/the sweater  washes  easily/with.difficulty
  'Such a/That/The sweater is easy/difficult to wash.'
b. Het hout laat zich gemakkelijk/moeilijk bewerken.
reflexive middle
  the wood  lets  refl  easily/with.difficulty  treat
  'It is easy/difficult to carve the wood.'
b'. Zulk/Dit/?Het hout bewerkt gemakkelijk/moeilijk.
regular middle
  such/this/the wood  treats  easily/with.difficulty
  'Such/This/The wood is easy/difficult to carve.'

      The default interpretation of the reflexive middles in (286) seems to be a generic one; like regular middles they seem to refer to some individual-level property of the subject of the construction. Since the use of punctual time adverbs like gisteren'yesterday' is incompatible with such a generic interpretation of the clause, it normally yields a somewhat marginal result (although the same types of exception hold as discussed for regular middles in Section 3.2.2.2, sub IF).

Example 287
a. ? Die trui liet zich gisteren gemakkelijk wassen.
  that sweater  let  refl  yesterday  easily  wash
b. ?? Die trui waste gisteren gemakkelijk.
  that sweater  washed  yesterday  easily

We add the examples in (288) to illustrate the problem discussed in Subsection I; although the examples in (288) seem structurally identical to the (a)-examples in (286) and (287), they may in fact be cases of non-middle constructions. Support for this claim is that the infinitival clause in (288a) does not necessarily refer to an individual-level property of the subject die baby as is also clear from the fact that using punctual time adverbs like gisteren'yesterday' is fully acceptable.

Example 288
a. Die baby laat zich gemakkelijk wassen.
  that baby  lets refl  easily  wash
  'That baby is easy to wash.'
b. Die baby liet zich gisteren gemakkelijk wassen.
  that baby let  refl  yesterday  easily  wash

      Although reflexive middles and regular middles are similar in that they both normally refer to an individual-level property of their subject, they do differ in a subtle way. In the regular middle construction the individual-level property must be a property that is prototypically assigned to the subject, whereas this is not required in the case of reflexive middles. As a result, reflexive middles can be based on a wider range of verbs than regular middles; the contrast between the two (b)-examples in (289) is due to the fact that having a certain degree of "predictability" is not a prototypical property of the results of soccer matches.

Example 289
a. Jan voorspelde de uitslag van die voetbalwedstrijd.
  Jan  predicted  the score of that soccer.match
b. * De uitslag van die voetbalwedstrijd voorspelt gemakkelijk.
  the score of that soccer.match  predicts  easily
b'. De uitslag van die voetbalwedstrijd laat zich gemakkelijk voorspellen.
  the result of that soccer.match  lets refl  easily  predict
  'The score of that soccer match is easy to predict.'

Perhaps this meaning difference also accounts for the fact, mentioned in the beginning of this subsection, that regular middles typically take type denoting noun phrases as their subject; they are less felicitous with definite subjects given that these are used to refer to specific entities mentioned earlier in the discourse, which are less likely to be described in terms of prototypical properties. Reflexive middles, on the other hand, do not refer to prototypical properties and are thus expected to readily take definite subjects.

[+]  III.  The implied experiencer and agent

The experiencer introduced by the evaluative modifier gemakkelijk'easily' and the subject of the infinitival clause are construed as coreferential, but must both be left implicit in the reflexive middle. The (a)-examples in (290) show this for the experiencer voor-PP normally selected by gemakkelijk and the (b)-examples for the agent of the infinitival clause. The fact that the experiencer and agent are both left implicit, of course, much favors the generic interpretation of the reflexive middle construction.

Example 290
a. * De trui laat zich voor Peter/iedereen gemakkelijk wassen.
  the sweater  let  refl  for Peter/everyone  easily  wash
a'. * Het hout laat zich voor Peter/iedereen gemakkelijk bewerken.
  the wood  lets  refl  for Peter/everyone  easily  treat
b. * De broek laat Peter/iedereen zich gemakkelijk wassen.
  the trousers  let  Peter/everyone  refl  easily  wash
b'. * Het hout laat Peter/iedereen zich gemakkelijk bewerken.
  the wood  lets  Peter/everyone  refl   easily  treat

The examples in (291) show, however, that it may be possible to realize the agent of the embedded verb by means of an agentive door-phrase, although the nominal part is normally not referential but generic in nature (or quantificational like iedereen'everyone' or niemand'nobody').

Example 291
a. Die trui laat zich door een specialist/?Jan gemakkelijk wassen.
  that sweater  let  refl  by a specialist/Jan  easily  wash
b. Het hout laat zich door een timmerman/?Jan gemakkelijk bewerken.
  the wood  lets  refl  by a carpenter/Jan  easily  treat

The example in (292) illustrates again the problem discussed in Subsection I: the superficially similar construction with an animate subject in (292) does readily allow the nominal part of the agentive door-phrase to be referential in nature.

Example 292
De baby laat zich door Peter gemakkelijk wassen.
  the baby  lets refl  by Peter  easily  wash
[+]  IV.  The verbs embedded under laten'to let'

This subsection discusses the verbs that may enter the reflexive middle construction. We will begin by showing that in the prototypical case the verb embedded under laten'to let' is transitive; intransitive and unaccusative verbs cannot enter the construction. The fact that unaccusative verbs cannot be used strongly suggests that the nominative subject of the reflexive middle does not correspond to the internal argument of the embedded verb but to the argument that is normally assigned accusative case by it; this is confirmed by the fact that verbs taking a complementive may also occur in the construction. We conclude with a discussion of ditransitive verbs.

[+]  A.  Transitive verbs

The examples in the preceding discussion have already shown that reflexive middles are typically based on transitive verbs, subsection II has further shown that the embedded verbs in reflexive middles exhibit a wider variation in meaning than those in regular middles: although reflexive middles refer to some inherent property of their subjects, this property need not be prototypically assigned to it. This is illustrated again in (293) by means of the verb verklaren'to explain': since remarkable phenomena are not prototypically thought of in terms of their degree of predictability, the transitive construction in (293a) does have a reflexive middle but not a regular middle counterpart. Some other verbs that have the same distribution as verklaren'to explain' are aanduiden'to point out', herkennen'to recognize', voorspellen'to predict' and vervangen'to replace'.

Example 293
a. Deze theorie verklaart dit opmerkelijke verschijnsel.
  this theory  explains  this remarkable phenomenon
b. * Dit opmerkelijke verschijnsel verklaart gemakkelijk.
  this remarkable phenomenon  explains  easily
b'. Dit opmerkelijke verschijnsel laat zich gemakkelijk verklaren.
  this remarkable phenomenon  lets  refl  easily  explain
  'This remarkable phenomenon is easy to explain.'
[+]  B.  Intransitive and monadic unaccusative verbs

The subject of a reflexive middle construction normally corresponds to the object of the verb embedded under laten. This is clear from the fact illustrated in (294) that intransitive verbs cannot be used in this construction.

Example 294
a. Jan laat Marie slapen.
  Jan lets  Marie sleep
b. * Marie laat zich gemakkelijk slapen.
  Marie lets  refl  easily sleep

This observation may lead to either of two conclusions: the subject of the reflexive middle must correspond to the internal argument of the embedded verb or to the noun phrase to which it assigns accusative case. The fact illustrated by (295) that unaccusative verbs cannot be used in reflexive middles either strongly suggests that the latter is the correct generalization.

Example 295
a. Jan liet de bus vertrekken.
  Jan let  the bus  leave
b. * De bus laat zich gemakkelijk vertrekken.
  the bus  let  refl  easily leave
[+]  C.  PO-verbs

That the subject of the reflexive middle normally corresponds not to an internal argument of the verb embedded under laten but to an object that is assigned accusative case by it is also clear from the fact illustrated by (296) that the nominal part of a PP-complement of an embedded PO-verb cannot appear as the subject of a reflexive middle.

Example 296
a. Marie laat Peter naar het schilderij kijken.
  Marie lets  Peter at the painting  look
b. * Het schilderij laat zich gemakkelijk naar kijken.
  the painting  lets  refl  easily  at  look

The examples in (297) show that the PO-verbs like beveiligen'to protect', which take an additional accusative object, can be used in reflexive middles, but then the subject of the middle, of course, corresponds to the accusative object of the verb.

Example 297
a. Jan beveiligt zijn computer tegen virussen.
  Jan protects  his computer  against viruses
b. Computers laten zich niet zo gemakkelijk beveiligen tegen virussen.
  computers  let  refl  not  that easily  protect  against viruses 
  'It isnʼt that easy to protect computers against viruses.'
[+]  D.  Verbs with a complementive

The examples in (294) to (296) suggest that subjects of reflexive middles need not correspond to internal arguments of the embedded verbs but instead correspond to arguments that are assigned accusative case by them. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that the embedded verb of a reflexive middle construction can also be a verb that selects a complementive PP; the subject of the reflexive middle construction then corresponds to the argument that is normally assigned accusative case by the embedded verb but functions as the subject of the PP; it is not an internal argument of the verb.

Example 298
a. Jan zet het boek in de boekenkast.
  Jan  puts  the book  onto the bookshelves
a'. Dat boek laat zich gemakkelijk in de boekenkast zetten.
  that book  lets  refl  easily  onto the bookshelves  put
b. Els neemt de kat op schoot.
  Els  takes  that cat  on the.lap
b'. De kat laat zich gemakkelijk op schoot nemen.
  that cat  lets  refl  easily  onto the.lap  take

The examples in (299) show the same thing for verbs taking an adjectival predicate or a verbal particle.

Example 299
a. De bezoekers lopen het gras plat.
  the visitors  walk  the grass  flat
a'. Het gras laat zich gemakkelijk plat lopen.
  the grass  lets  refl  easily  flat  walk
b. Jan bergt zijn spullen op.
  Jan puts  his things  away
b'. Die spullen laten zich gemakkelijk opbergen.
  those things  let  refl  easily  away-put
[+]  E.  Ditransitive verbs

The (a)-examples in (300) show that double object verbs cannot be used in reflexive middle constructions. The (b)-examples show, however, that reflexive middles are possible if the embedded verb takes a periphrastic indirect object.

Example 300
a. Sinterklaas geeft lieve kinderen graag zulke cadeaus.
  Santa Claus  gives  sweet children  gladly  such presents
  'Santa Claus likes to give such presents to sweet children.'
a'. * Zulke cadeaus laten zich lieve kinderen gemakkelijk geven.
  such presents  let  refl  sweet children  easily  give
b. Sinterklaas geeft zulke cadeaus graag aan lieve kinderen.
  Santa Claus  gives  such presents gladly  to sweet children
  'Santa Claus likes to give such presents to sweet children.'
b'. Zulke cadeaus laten zich gemakkelijk (aan lieve kinderen) geven.
  such presents  let  refl  easily   to sweet children  give
  'Such presents give easily to sweet children.'

Example (301a) suggests that double object verbs can be more readily used if the subject of the reflexive middle construction corresponds to the dative object; see Ackema & Schoorlemmer (2006:181) for similar examples. We should be careful here, however, given that indirect objects are normally animate: we may therefore be dealing with a regular permissive/causative construction comparable to the one given in (301b).

Example 301
a. ? Lieve kinderen laten zich gemakkelijk zulke cadeaus geven.
  sweet children  let  refl  easily  such presents  give
  'Sweet children are easy to give such presents.'
b. Bankdirecteuren laten zich graag hoge bonussen toekennen.
  bank.managers  let  refl  gladly  high premiums  prt.-grant
  'Bank managers like to make someone give them high premiums.'

In order to establish unambiguously that the subject of a reflexive middle can correspond to an indirect object of a double object verb, the indirect object must be inanimate, but such cases seem to give rise to a marginal result at best.

Example 302
a. Jan gaf het huis een flinke beurt.
  Jan gave  the house  a good cleaning
b. ?? Het huis laat zich gemakkelijk een flinke beurt geven.
  the house  lets  refl  easily  a good cleaning  give
[+]  V.  The evaluative modifier

The evaluative modifier in the reflexive middle is of the gemakkelijk-type. Like in the regular middle, the modifier is normally compulsory although the examples in (303) show that it can be left out under the same conditions as the evaluative modifier in regular middles (though some of our informants report they have difficulty with (303c)); cf. Section 3.2.2.2, sub IC.

Example 303
a. De trui laat zich (niet) wassen.
  the sweater  let  refl  not  wash
b. Het hout laat zich (niet) bewerken.
  the wood  lets  refl  not  treat
c. Dat huis laat zich verven als een trein.
  that house  lets  refl  paint  as a train
[+]  VI.  The simplex reflexive pronoun

So far, we have not discussed the most conspicuous element in the reflexive middle construction, the simplex reflexive. We will in fact keep our discussion of this element very brief given that the function of this element is more extensively discussed in Section 2.5.2, sub II, on inherently reflexive constructions. We especially discuss there the hypothesis proposed by Burzio (1986: Section 1.5) and Everaert (1986) that the simplex reflexive can be used as a non-argument which nonetheless must be assigned case. Since verbs normally assign accusative case to a single argument only, addition of the simplex reflexive will block case-assignment to the original direct object, which must hence be assigned nominative case (as a result of which the subject of the corresponding transitive construction is suppressed, just as in passive constructions). Reflexive middles work in essentially the same way: the simplex reflexive is assigned accusative case by the verb embedded under laten; consequently, the embedded verb can no longer assign this case to its internal argument, which must therefore be promoted to subject of the entire construction in order to receive nominative case. For a more detailed discussion we refer to Section 2.5.2, sub IID.
      The proposal briefly summarized above can account for various properties of the reflexive middle, such as the fact discussed in Subsection IV that the subject of the construction must correspond to an argument that is assigned accusative case by the embedded verb, which excludes intransitive (PO-)verbs as input for the construction. It also provides a partial answer to the question as to why regular middles and reflexive middles occur side-by-side, as is shown again by the (a)-examples in (304), whereas there are no complex reflexive constructions that correspond to adjunct or impersonal middles, as is shown by the (b)- and (c)-examples.

Example 304
a. Die trui wast gemakkelijk.
regular middle
  that sweater  washes  easily
a'. Die trui laat zich gemakkelijk wassen.
  that sweater  lets  refl  easily  wash
b. Die muziek danst lekker.
adjunct middle
  that music  dances  nicely
  'It is nice to dance to that music.'
b'. * Die muziek laat zich lekker dansen.
  that music  lets  refl  nicely  dance
c. Het danst lekker op die muziek.
impersonal middle
  it dances  nicely  on that music
  'It is nice to dance to that music.'
c'. * Het laat zich lekker dansen op die muziek.
  it  lets  refl  nicely  dance  on that music

The answer is simply that the simplex reflexive can only perform its function as case absorber in example (304a'), in which the transitive verb wassen would otherwise assign case to its internal argument die trui'that sweater'. In (304b'&c'), the use of the reflexive is superfluous since the verb cannot assign case to the noun phrase die muziek anyway; cf. Jan danst *(op) die muziek'Jan is dancing to that music'.

References:
  • Ackema, Peter & Schoorlemmer, Maaike2006MiddlesEveraert, Martin & Riemsdijk, Henk van (eds.)The Blackwell companion to syntax3Malden, MA/OxfordBlackwell Publishing131-203
  • Barbiers, Sjef, Bennis, Hans, Vogelaer, Gunther de, Devos, Magda & Ham, Margreet van de2005Syntactic atlas of the Dutch dialectsAmsterdamAmsterdam University Press
  • Burzio, Luigi1986Italian syntax: a government-binding approachDordrecht/Boston/Lancaster/TokyoReidel
  • Cornips, Leonie1994Syntactische variatie in het Algemeen Nederlands van HeerlenAmsterdamUniversity of AmsterdamThesis
  • Cornips, Leonie1996The spread of the reflexive adjunct middle in the Limburg dialects: 1885 -1994Cremers, Crit & Den Dikken, Marcel (eds.)Linguistics in the Netherlands 1996AmsterdamJohn Benjamins49 -60
  • Everaert, Martin1986The syntax of reflexivizationDordrecht/RivertonForis Publications
  • Steinbach, Markus2002Middle voice. A comparative study in the syntax-semantics interface of GermanAmsterdam/PhiladelphiaJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
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