German/Grammar/Reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns and reflexive verbsEdit

English has special pronouns for when an object in a sentence is the same as the subject. German has this feature as well, but in addition there are certain verbs which expect these special pronouns.

TerminologyEdit

A reflexive pronoun is a pronoun used for an object which is the same as the subject. In English, the reflexive pronouns are formed by adding "-self" or "-selves" to a possessive pronoun. For example:

  • "I'm washing myself," rather than "I'm washing me."
  • "We can see ourselves," rather than "We can see us."

German uses its reflexive pronouns in the same way, but just as impersonal verbs expect an impersonal pronoun as a subject, there are certain verbs which expect a reflexive object, or at least take a different meaning when used with a reflexive object. We'll call these reflexive verbs. They are a feature of many European languages, especially Romance and Slavic languages. English is an exception though; when you use an English verb with a reflexive pronoun it almost always has pretty much the same meaning as it does at any other time. (English has a short list of exceptions, including "to pride" and "to perjure", which can only be used with a reflexive pronoun. You have to say "He perjured himself" rather than "He perjured". There are a few other exceptions where the verb has a reflexive meaning other than its usual meaning, for example "to conduct oneself", "to behave oneself", "to enjoy oneself".) Because reflexive verbs are rare in English, German reflexive verbs can be tricky for English speaking learners. The reflexive meaning of a verb is usually related to the main meaning, assuming there is one, but it often has to be memorized separately.

The reflexive pronounsEdit

The German reflexive pronouns only have two cases you have to worry about, the accusative and dative. They are summarized in the following tables:

Reflexiv Pronouns (accustaive)
Person Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
First mich uns
Second (familiar) dich euch
Second (polite) sich
Third sich
Reflexiv Pronouns (dative)
Person Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
First mir uns
Second (familiar) dir euch
Second (polite) sich
Third sich

There is no "-self" suffix as in English, and really the only change is that sich is used in the third person and polite second person for both accusative and dative. It might seem like the lack of a "-self" suffix, or that there is mostly no difference between the reflexive pronouns and the personal pronouns, would cause confusion, but you can easily train your ears to pick up on the repeated use of a pronoun and in practice there is little to worry about. Some examples:

  • Du kannst dich sehen. – "You can see yourself."
  • Er kann sich sehen. – "He can see himself."
  • Ich schenke mir ein Spielzeug. – "I'm giving myself a toy."
  • Er schenkt sich ein Spielzeug. – "He's giving himself a toy."

There is an adverb selbst you can use in cases where a reflexive pronoun is used for emphasis in English:

  • Hast du das selbst gemacht? – "You made this yourself?"

Even though, for example, the reflexive dich is spelled the same as the as the accusative dich, you should consider them to be different words with different, though related meanings, just as "you" and "yourself" are different words in English.

Each otherEdit

Now let's start talking about some of the ways that German uses reflexive pronouns differently than English. The first is when the phrase "each other" would be used in English. For example treffen can mean "meet":

  • Ich treffe dich im Café. – "I'll meet you in the cafe."
    • Note that German prefers the present tense here.

But if you're not worried about who is meeting who, you might say "We'll meet in the cafe." But "meet" is normally a transitive verb, so who will we be meeting? We'll meet each other. German uses a reflexive pronoun for "each other" in this kind of situation:

  • Wir treffen uns im Café. – "We'll meet in the café."
  • Sie treffen sich im Café. – "They'll meet in the café."

English would not use a reflexive pronoun, "We'll meet ourselves," unless it's some kind of time paradox in a science fiction story. In English you'd use "each other", and German has an equivalent, einander. It's possible to use einander in this situation, but it's not necessary except to avoid ambiguity.

Object to subjectEdit

Another common use of a reflexive pronoun is to change what would normally be an accusative object into the subject. For example in the sentence:

  • Er öffnet die Tür. – "He's opening the door."

the subject is er. But what if it's not known who or what is causing the door to open? In English you can say:

  • "The door is opening."

In effect, the transitive verb "to open" becomes an intransitive verb and what was the object in the transitive meaning becomes the subject in the intransitive meaning. (The technical term for a verb like this is "ergative verb" or "labile verb".) In German you express the same meaning with a reflexive pronoun:

  • Die Tür öffnet sich. – "The door is opening."

Similarly:

  • Er dreht das Rad. – "He's turning the wheel."
  • Das Rad dreht sich. – "The wheel is turning."

Keep in mind though that there are many verbs for which this object to subject transition occurs without the help of a reflexive pronoun:

  • Er kocht das Wasser. – "He's boiling the water."
  • Das Wasser kocht. – "The water is boiling."

You have to learn when a reflexive pronoun can be used this way for each verb. Both English and German have several ways of making this object to subject transition. The standard method is to use the passive voice, as in "The water is being boiled."

Other reflexive verbsEdit

The usual pattern is that a verb has one meaning as a transitive verb, but it has a different but related meaning when a reflexive pronoun is involved. The reflexive meaning may have evolved in a different direction over time than the original meaning, so it may be difficult to deduce one meaning from the other as they are now. This means you may have to memorize the reflexive verb separately. In some cases the original meaning has been lost, and only the reflexive version remains.

For example, fühlen, meaning to feel something using your sense of touch, is a transitive verb:

  • Ich fühle den Wind. – "I feel the wind."

As a reflexive verb it can mean to feel an emotion:

  • Ich fühle mich traurig. – "I feel sad."

As another example, the prepositional verb erinnern an (with accusative) means "to remind of" as a transitive verb:

  • Du erinnerst mich an meine Frau. – "You remind me of my wife."

As a reflexive verb, erinnern means "to remember":

  • Ich erinnere mich an meine Frau. – "I remember my wife."

Body partsEdit

As we mentioned in the section on pronomial possessives, German often uses a definite article instead of a pronoun when referring to body parts. You can add a reflexive pronoun to make it clear whose body party is meant:

  • Dieser Typ wäscht sich nie die Hände. – "This guy never washes his hands."


Grammar

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