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On the distribution of reflexive and reciprocal markers in Italian, Serbian and English

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Napoleon Katsos.

Many of the world’s languages employ two different reflexive and reciprocal markers, one of which is phonologically lighter than the other. The distribution of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ markers is closely related to the predicate the marker is associated with. In languages such as English, Dutch or Russian it is grammaticalised and the light marking can only be used with a limited set of verbs (cf. Bob washed (himself) vs. Bob hates *(himself)). On the other hand, in languages like Italian, Serbian and German there is a preference for the light marker with some verbs, and the heavy marker with others (Serbian: Marko se obukao ‘Marko dressed’ vs. Marko voli sebe ‘Marko loves himself’). This paper investigates the distribution of light and heavy reflexive and reciprocal markers in Italian, Serbian and English, following the account put forward by Haspelmath (2005).

Contrary to the accounts based on predicate meaning (Haiman 1983, König and Vezzosi 2004), Haspelmath (2005) claims that the distribution of reflexive markers is directly dependent on the verbs’ frequency of reflexive use: if a verb is often used with reflexive objects, it tends to appear with light reflexive marking, and if it is more commonly used with disjoint pronominal objects, it normally carries a heavy reflexive marker. Applying the same logic to reciprocals, it can be assumed that verbs often used in reciprocal form tend to occur with light reciprocal markers, while those whose reciprocal use is rare take heavy markers.

For all three languages, we discuss a corpus study and the judgements of a group of native speakers on light and heavy reflexive and reciprocal markers used with 22 verbs that differ in frequency of reflexive and reciprocal use. It is shown that the empirical data largely lends support to Haspelmath’s proposal, but several additional factors need to be taken into consideration in order to achieve a full explanation of reflexive and reciprocal marker distribution.


Haiman, J. (1983). Iconic and economic motivation. Language 59. 781–819.

Haspelmath, M. (2005). A frequentist explanation of some universals of reflexive marking. Draft of a paper presented at the Workshop on Reciprocals and Reflexives, Freie Universität Berlin, 1-2 October 2004. Downloaded from, on 20 January 2006.

König, E. and Vezzosi, L. (2004). The role of predicate meaning in the development of reflexivity. In Bisang, W., Himmelmann, N. P. and Wiemer, B. (eds), What makes Grammaticalization? Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 213–244.

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