Foreign language learners often get confused over what exactly reflexive verbs exactly do. Many people also don´t understand why they exist at all and their purpose. This article will explain reflexive verbs and more.
This article will help you to understand reflexive verbs in the following ways:
• what exactly reflexive verbs are
• why they exist
• how they are used (in Spanish, French, Italian and German)
• PLUS a couple of situations on when not to use them
The focus of this article is explaining in outline how reflexive verbs work in Spanish, French, Italian and German.
What exactly is a reflexive verb?
Put simply, a reflexive verb is a verb where the person doing the action is also the recipient of the action (e.g. I wash myself). Whilst they are not very common in English, in other languages they are commonly used.
To create a reflexive sentence, languages use what are called "reflexive pronouns". Put simply, these words are equivalent to the English “myself”, “yourself”, “himself”, “herself”, etc.
From the diagram below you will see that "reflexive pronouns" always agree with the person(s) doing the action:
The sentences may sound slightly strange in English, but reflexive pronouns are often necessary in other languages.
The word order may also be different in other languages however. See the examples in the following diagram, for example:
What are the Reflexive Pronouns in French, Spanish, Italian and German?
You can see the reflexive pronouns in French, Spanish, Italian and German below:
How are reflexive verbs used?
In Spanish, Italian, French and German it is common to use reflexive verbs to say things, such as:
• I wash myself (Me lavo: Spanish & Italian, Je me lave: French, Ich wasche mich: German)
• They wash themselves (Se lavan: Spanish, Se lavano: Italian, Ils se lavent/Elles se lavent: French, Sie waschen sich: German)
As per the above examples, washing is one situation where if the person is having a wash they need to say that they are doing it to themselves. This is where the reflexive pronoun comes in.
Essentially you use normal verb endings plus add the reflexive pronoun to the sentence. This shows that the person doing the action is also the one being affected by the action (i.e. not someone or something else).
In the languages discussed here, without the “myself”, “themselves”, etc. part the listener would be anticipating the person saying they are washing an object. See:
• Lavo…./Je lave…./Ich wasche…. = I wash…. or I am washing…. (i.e. something else e.g. the car, the dishes, etc.)
Put simply unlike in English the Spanish, Italian, French and German languages do not allow you simply to say “I wash”. In essence you have to say:
• “I wash myself”; or
• “I wash….” plus name the object(s) being washed (e.g. “I wash the dishes”).
Are there any exceptions?
One important exception to this in Spanish, French and Italian is where you want to say that you are washing your hands, your face, etc.
In this situation in the languages being discussed you do not drop the reflexive part plus name what body part is being washed:
◦ Se lavan las manos: Spanish
◦ Se lavano le mani : Italian
◦ Ils or Elles se lavent les mains: French
= Literally: They wash themselves the hands.
With German you do almost the same thing, except in German you change the reflexive pronoun to a dative pronoun:
◦ Sie waschen ihnen die Hände.
= They wash their hands.
= Literally: They wash to them the hands
For info, the German dative pronouns are as follows:
If this point causes you confusion, maybe skip this part for now.
Saying someone´s name
Another common situation in Spanish, Italian and French (but not in German) where a reflexive verb is used is to say your name, for example:
• Spanish: Me llamo…./Italian: Me chiamo…./French: Je m´appelle….. = Literally: I call myself….
Without the “myself” part of the sentence it would sound like you are calling someone else (e.g. by phone):
• Spanish: Llamo…./Italian: Chiamo…./French: J´appelle….. = Literally: I call….or I am calling…. (i.e. someone else)
In German by contrast you use the non-reflexive verb heißen (to be named) to say someone´s name, for example:
• Ich heiße John = I am named John
This verb has been mentioned for completeness, even though it is not reflexive.
What other things can reflexive verbs do?
On a separate note in Spanish and Italian sometimes reflexive verbs may also show a change in status or mood, for example:
• Enfadarse in Spanish means “to become angry”, but literally means “to anger oneself”
• By contrast, the non-reflexive version Enfadar “to anger” would instead be used in the sense of causing someone else to become angry.
Although the example is in Spanish, this kind of thing also happens in Italian (as well as in French and in German, but to a smaller extent).
Using reflexive verbs to say "each other"
Reflexive verbs may also sometimes convey the meaning of “each other”.
Sometimes in the languages being discussed reflexive verbs can convey the meaning of “each other”. See the following:
• In Italian, Spanish, French and German, for example, the verb “to get married” is reflexive (i.e. sposarsi in Italian, casarse in Spanish, se marier in French and sich verheiraten in German).
Sometimes this leads to what seems as strange sentences in English, for example:
▪ Si sposano (Italian), Se casan (Spanish), Ils or Elles se marient (French) and Sie verheiraten sich (German) literally translate as “They marry themselves”.
▪ In reality the “themselves” word is used in the sense that English speakers would say “each other”.
Surprisingly the “each other” meaning can often also be expressed in the languages being discussed even with some traditionally non-reflexive verbs.
Let´s take the French verb parler (to speak/to talk), which is a verb that is normally not used in a reflexive way.
This verb can be used to say people speak to each other, for example:
• Ils se parlent = Literally this means “They speak (to) themselves”, but in English this would be translated as “They talk to each other”
• Nous nous parlons = Literally this means “We talk (to) ourselves”, but in English this would be translated as “We talk to each other”.
Parler could also be used with reflexive pronouns to say someone talks to himself or herself:
• Il se parle = Literally this means “He talks (to) himself”
• Tu te parlais = Literally this means “You were talking to yourself”
Although the examples above relate to the French language, often the equivalent is possible in all the languages being discussed here, for example:
• Spanish: Te hablaste = You were talking to yourself
• Italian: Si parlava = He (or She) was talking to himself (or herself)
• German: Sie spricht sich = She talks to herself.
There are other ways of saying "each other" in the languages discussed here, such as "l´un et l´autre" in French, but are not discussed further here.
Can I use a reflexive verb to emphasise who is doing the action?
Not really, as reflexive verbs are not really used for emphasis in Spanish, French, Italian or German. They merely show the listener who is being affected by the action.
When you want to say that “you did something yourself” this is not done using a reflexive verb. This is done in a different way in the languages being discussed here, for example:
• J´ai écrit ça moi même (= French)
• Lo escribí yo mismo/a* (= Spanish)
• L´ho scritto io stesso/a* (= Italian)
• Ich habe es selbst geschreiben (= German)
= I wrote that myself
* Note: “o” ending if male talking and “a” ending if female talking
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This article has hopefully helped you to understand the key elements of reflexive verbs in Spanish, French, Italian and German.
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