The emergence of English reflexive verbs: an analysis based on the Oxford English Dictionary

Post written by Peter Siemund based on an article in the latest issue of English Language and Linguistics

If we are to believe standard grammatical descriptions, English possesses only very few reflexive verbs, i.e. verbs that obligatorily occur with the reflexive marker myself, yourself, himself, etc. Quirk et al. (1985: 357–8), for example, treat the verbs pride, absent, avail, demean, ingratiate, perjure as ‘reflexive verbs’, as these obligatorily take the reflexive pronoun. Besides these, they distinguish ‘semi-reflexive verbs’ (e.g. behave, feel, adjust, prepare) “where the reflexive pronoun may be omitted with little or no change of meaning” (Quirk et al. 1985: 358). A similar list of “verbs that select mandatory reflexives” is discussed in Huddleston & Pullum (2002: 1487–8). Both grammars suggest that the list of obligatorily reflexive verbs in English is not very extensive.
Geniušienė (1987) and Siemund (2010) offer extensive lists of verbs (motion middles, anticausatives, lexicalizations) that occur together with reflexive pronouns. Nevertheless, these studies are purely synchronic, analyzing a sample of fictional texts and a sample drawn from the British National Corpus (BNC) respectively. Peitsara (1997) also offers verb lists, though not differentiating between reflexive and middles uses of the verbs in these lists, as her focus lies on strategies of reflexive marking.

The main aim of the present contribution is to add a diachronic dimension to these studies that traces the history of reflexive-marked verbs in middle functions through time. To that end, the history of the verbs that partake in the aforementioned processes is scrutinized using the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; Simpson & Weiner 1989) as a database. I here explore if and when the relevant verbs begin to occur with reflexive pronouns in essentially non-reflexive functions. The result is a fine-grained survey of the history of reflexive verbs in English that can inform and correct current assumptions, as reflected in grammar books and dictionaries, about grammaticalization and lexicalization processes in this domain, perhaps even in general. Moreover, my study adds a puzzle piece to the numerous changes that have occurred in the English lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary proves to be a rich and highly valuable data source for carrying out serious grammatical analyses.

Read the full article ‘The emergence of English reflexive verbs: an analysis based on the Oxford English Dictionary here


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