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Reflexive and reciprocal pronouns

Reflexive pronouns express the notion that somebody or something is doing something (i.e. an action) to oneself:

Example 1

Tom skeart him
Tom is shaving himself

Reciprocals are used if two people or things act on each other:

Example 2

Tom en Lisette kenne inoar
Tom and Lisette know each other

This means that Tom knows Lisette, and that Lisette knows Tom.

The rest of this topic gives an overview of the forms and use of the reflexive and reciprocal pronouns in Frisian.


The reflexive pronoun has two sets of forms. The first set, sometimes called "neutral", has a form which is identical to personal pronouns in object position. As reflexives are not in focus, it is usually the weak form of the personal pronoun that is selected. Hence, in an example as do fersinst dy you.NOM mistake-INFL you.REFL you make a mistake the pronunciation of dy is [di] and not [dɛ.i̯]. The second set consists of the forms of the first set plus the element -sels self. The paradigm for the reflexive pronouns is given in the table below:

Table 1
Singular Plural
neutral form -sels-form neutral form -sels-form
1st person my /mi/ my mysels /misɛls/ myself ús /ys/ our ússels /ysɛls/ ourselves
2nd person informal dy /di/ you dysels /disɛls/ yourself jim /jɪm/ you jimsels /jɪmsɛls/ yourselves
polite jo /jo/ you josels /josɛls/ yourself
3rd person masculine him /hɪm/ him himsels /hɪmsɛls/ himself
feminine har /hɑr/ her harsels /hɑrsɛls/ herself har /hɑr/ them harsels /hɑrsɛls/ themselves
Next to these correlates of the object forms of personal pronouns, there is the reflexive form of the impersonal pronoun men one, which is jin yours. In Frisian dictionary entries, this is the form that is used to indicate that a verb is reflexive.

Although the form of the reflexive pronoun is identical to the object form of the personal prouns, a partial exception must be made for the third person female singular and the third person plural. These categories have next to the form har also a weak form se (more information personal pronouns). This form se is not allowed as a reflexive, however:

Example 3

Hja waskje har/*se
They wash themselves
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Dutch influence

The special Dutch third person reflexive form zich him-/her-/it-/themselves does not exist in Frisian (see Reuland (2000), De Jong (1985) and De Jong (1987)). However, under the influence of Dutch it is not uncommon that sentences like the following are heard in the speech of Frisian speakers:

Example 4

*Pier hatet sichsels
Pier hates himself
Pier hates himself
*Dêryn fersinne se sich
there.in mistake they themself
They are mistaken at this point

A few examples of neutral forms and -sels-forms are given below (see the section use for some remarks on the choice between the two).

Example 5

a. Ik ha my stompt
I have me bumped
I've bumped into something
b. Ik ha mysels yn 'e finger snien
I have myself in the finger cut
I cut my finger
c. Klaai dy gau oan
dress you quickly on
Get dressed quickly
d. Lit dysels sjen
let yourself see
Show yourself
e. Wy sette de koffer neist ús op 'e grûn
we put the suitcase next us on the ground
We are putting the suitcase on the floor next to ourselves
f. Sille wy ússels traktearje op in diner?
shall we ourself treat on a dinner
Shall we treat ourselves to a dinner?

The choice between him him and har her is based on the semantics of the coreferential noun. In the following example the two nouns are grammatically neuter, but they show a different reflexive pronoun. In (a), famke girl has a female interpretation, and hence it invokes the pronoun har. In (b), hûntsje dog.DIM.N little dog is an animal. Animals always take the masculine reflexive pronoun him:

Example 6

a. It famke fersinde har
the girl mistook her
The girl was mistaken
b. It hûntsje ferfeelde him
the dog.DIM bored him
The little dog was bored

The reciprocal pronoun may appear as elkoar, inoar and mekoar, all meaning each other. These reciprocals may be extended by a suffix -en in mekoarren, inoarren and elkoarren. These longer forms have the same meaning as their bare counterparts.

The reciprocal pronoun has a genitive (possessive) form with the suffix -s. Examples are:

Example 7

a. Hja hawwe inoars lichem fernield
they have each others body destroyed
They destroyed each other's bodies
b. Piter en Sibe koene inoarrens wiif net
Piter and Sive knew.PL each others wife not
Piter and Sibe did not know each other's wife
[+]Use of reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns can be used to indicate that an entity is acting on themselves. The choice between the neutral forms and the -sels-forms depends on many factors which cannot be explained here exhaustively. They are a matter of syntax. Stressed pronouns are often -sels-forms. When the reflexive occurs with a preposition, we usually find the -sels-form too: oan jinsels tinke to think of oneself, op jinsels stean to stand by oneself, op jinsels fertrouwe to trust oneself.

Certain reflexive verbs, on the other hand, require the reflexive pronoun jin as obligatory element. Then the neutral form without -sels is used. Examples are:

Example 8

a. jin fersinne
to be mistaken
b. jin ferfele
to be bored
c. jin fersliepe
to oversleep

Verbal expressions with of a light verb can have the same property, for example in jin soargen meitsje to be worried. The example below shows an obligatorily reflexive verbal complex. Here the preposition may be responsible for the choice of the reflexive with -sels:

Example 9

ta jinsels komme
to one-self come
to find peace

With other verbs, the reflexive is not obligatory, as free chosen objects are also possible. For example, there is the reflexive jin oanklaaie to get dressed that may alternate with immen oanklaaie to dress somebody (else).

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More details about the reflexive pronouns from a syntactic point of view can be found in the topic reflexive pronouns and the emphatic adverbial modifier sels.

[+]Use of reciprocal pronouns

The reciprocal pronouns are used to indicate an action in which the participants both act as agent and patient with respect to each other. For example:

Example 10

a. Fan inoar hâlde
of each.other keep
To love each other
b. Dy jonges pleagje inoar altyd
those guys tease each.other always
Those guys are always teasing each other

In other cases, the semantics of interaction between a noun and a reciprocal is less clear. In efterinoar ride to ride one after the other or de skilderijen hingje ûnderinoar the paintings were hanging below each other, there is an asymmetry between the participants: one is behind or below the other, without reciprocity (there is no reciprocal action).

In other cases, there is only one participant, which means that the construction is idiomatic, as in immen trochinoar skodzje to shake somebody, yninoar sakje to collapse or jin útinoar wurkje work oneself to death.

If the reciprocal occurs in an Adposition Phrase (PP), it is written as one word together with its preceding preposition. In contrast to Dutch (a), the stress falls on the preposition in Frisian (b):

Example 11

a. met elKAAR
with each other
b. meiinoar
with each other
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See for more details about stress of the reciprocals Hoekstra (1991) and Tamminga (1963:60)). Syntactic aspects are discussed in the topic on the reciprocal pronoun.

  • Hoekstra, Jarich1991Oer it beklamjen fan ferhâldingswurden yn it Frysk, it Hollânsk en it IngelskUs Wurk4067-103
  • Jong, Jan de1985Doe sei de plysjeman: Dêryn fergisse se sich noch steedsFrysk en Frij21-1255
  • Jong, Jan de1987'Sich' bestiet yn it Frysk netFrysk en Frij17-10.
  • Reuland, Eric2000Anaphoric relationsFrajzyngier, Z. & Curl, T.S. (eds.)Reflexives: Forms and FunctionsBenjamins1-40
  • Tamminga, Douwe Annes1963Op 'e taelhelling. Losse trochsneden fan Frysk taellibben. IBoalsertA.J. Osinga