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Reflexive and reciprocal pronouns

Reflexive and reciprocal pronouns occur in utterances such as the following ((1) illustrates reflexives, (2) reciprocals):

Example 1

a. Ik zag mezelf in de spiegel.
I saw myself in the mirror
b. Dat betaalt zichzelf later uit
That will pay for itself later
Example 2

Tom en Lisette kennen elkaar van Twitter
Tom and Lisette know each other from Twitter

The reflexive pronoun has two sets of forms. The first set, sometimes called "basic", resembles personal pronouns in object position, with forms such as meme/ myself, jeyou/ youself etc. An exception is the third person, which has the special reflexive form zichhim-/her-/it-/themselves. The second set consists of the forms of the first set plus the element -zelfself. (3) gives a few examples contrasting basic forms and -zelf-forms (see here for remarks on the choice between the two).

Example 3

a. Ik heb me gestoten.
I've bumped into something
b. Ik heb mezelf in de vinger gesneden.
I cut my finger.
c. Hij scheert zich nooit.
PRO.3SG.M shave.3SG.PRS REFL.3 never
He never shaves.
d. Hij neemt zichzelf te serieus.
PRO.3SG.M take.3SG.PRS REFL.3 too serious
He takes himself too seriously.
e. We zetten de koffer naast ons op de grond.
PRO.1PL put.1PL.PRS DEF.C.SG suitcase(C)SG next REFL.1PL on DEF.C.SG floor(C)SG
We put the suitcase on the floor next to ourselves.
f. Zullen we onszelf verwennen met een diner?
shall.1PL.PRS PRO.1PL REFL.1PL treat.INF with INDF dinner(N)SG
Should we treat ourselves to a dinner?

Each set of reflexives has a total of 6 person/number forms: first person singular, first person plural, second person singular neutral, second person singular polite, second person plural and third person (singular and plural are identical). There is no gender distinction in the reflexive paradigm.

In addition, there is a variant with the form possessive pronoun + eigenown, for example m'n/me eigenmy ownmyself. This usage is widespread in informal discourse and across most of the Dutch-speaking area (Barbiers 2008).

The reciprocal pronoun is morphologically invariant. The only variation lies in the choice between alternative forms: the most common form elkaar derives from the more formal elkander, and the colloquial variant mekaar goes back to the archaic malkander. These all mean each other but they differ in register and style. In some idioms, they are used interchangeably, e.g. in Komt voor elkaar/mekaarIt'll be taken care of.

The reflexive pronoun can occur as an obligatory element with certain verbs. In most cases, the form required is the neutral form without -zelf (see (4) for examples).

Example 4

a. zich vergissen
to be mistaken
b. zich voornemen
to intend
c. zich verslapen
too oversleep

(5) gives an example of a verbal complex involving a form with -zelf. Here, the preposition may be responsible for the choice of the reflexive.

Example 5

tot zichzelf komen
to come to one's senses (lit. to come to oneself)
[+] Forms

The reflexive pronouns have a paradigm that is largely identical to that of the personal pronouns in object position. Each paradigm cell has two variants, one with -zelfself suffixed and one without.

Table 1
Singular Plural
neutral form zelf-form neutral form zelf-form
1st person me/mə/ mezelf/məzɛlf/ ons/ɔns/ ons/ɔns/
2nd person informal je/jə/ jezelf/jəzɛlf/ je/je/ jezelf/jəzɛlf/
formal u/y/, zich/zɪx/ uzelf/yzɛlf/, zichzelf/zɪxzɛlf/ u/y/, zich/zɪx/ uzelf/yzɛlf/, zichzelf/zɪxzɛlf/
3rd person zich/zɪx/ zichzelf/zɪxzɛlf/ zich/zɪx/ zichzelf/zɪxzɛlf/
With the exception of the third person, the base forms look like the reduced personal pronouns, with an extra form in the second person plural (informal). Full forms occur only in the first person (the form mij/mɛɪ/ and its zelf-counterpart) and only occasionally. The person and number specification of the reflexive depends on the subject.

The reciprocal pronouns are invariant.

[+] Use

Dutch uses reflexives in roughly the same contexts as English. The choice between the neutral forms and the zelf-forms depends on many factors and cannot be explained exhaustively here. Stressed pronouns are often zelf-forms. In most cases, however, there are other elements in the sentence that determine the choice, primarily verbs and prepositions. When the reflexive occurs with a preposition, we usually find the zelf-form: aan zichzelf denkento think of oneself, op zichzelf staanto stand by oneself, to be isolated, op zichzelf vertrouwento trust oneself.

By contrast, reflexives can occur as obligatory objects to verbs. Here the neutral form is more common: zich vergissento err, zich verslapento oversleep, zich gedragento behave, zich ergerento be annoyed. Some of these combinations involve more than a verb and a reflexive, as for example in zich zorgen makento be worried.

[show extra information]

Recently, the number of verbs requiring a reflexive has been expanded analogically. For example, a number of verbs denoting psychological states are increasingly treated as inherently reflexive: irriterento be irritated now often becomes zich irriterento irritate (oneself), in all likelihood under the influence of zich ergerento be annoyed. As this cluster expands, the reflexive may come to function as a marker of psychological state.

With other verbs the reflexive is not obligatory, but occurs as an ordinary object pronoun. For example, there is the reflexive zich aankledento get dressed, which alternates with iemand aankledento dress somebody (else) (see also here).

The reciprocal pronouns are used to indicate a reciprocal action, as in van elkaar houdento love each other or op elkaar botsento bump into each other. In other cases, the semantics of interaction is less clear. In achter elkaar rijdento ride one after the other or De schilderijen hingen onder elkaarThe paintings were hanging below each other, there is an asymmetry between the participants: one is behind or below the other, without reciprocity. In yet other cases, there is only one participant, which means the construction is idiomatic: iemand door elkaar schuddento shake somebody, in elkaar zakkento collapse. For the two forms elkaar and mekaar and their history, see (Hüning 2006)

Some combinations of reciprocal plus preposition can be replaced by a form with -een. The meaning is often idiomatic: aaneentogether, achtereenin successionbijeentogether, dooreenjumbled upineeninto one anotheropeenon top of each other and uiteenapart. These forms are used in more formal registers.

  • Barbiers, Sjef, Bennis, Hans, Vogelaer, Gunther de, Devos, Magda & Ham, Margreet van de2008Syntactic atlas of the Dutch dialectsAmsterdamAmsterdam University Press
  • Hüning, Matthias2006Reciprociteit in het Nederlands: de geschiedenis van elkaar en mekaarNederlandse Taalkunde11185-217
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