The unity of form and meaning in Czech reflexivization patterns

Mirjam Fried, Princeton University

The polyfunctional nature of reflexivization as attested across Slavic languages has been challenging linguists for a long time, both as a general Slavic phenomenon and within individual languages. Existing proposals have been largely motivated by the desire to find an invariant function for the reflexive morpheme, but such attempts inevitably become too reductionist to fully account for all the facts, whether we aim for a syntactic definition (e.g. Jakobson 1957), or for a purely semantic/conceptual model (Janda 1993). This paper argues for an analysis in which both formal and semantic/pragmatic properties are taken into consideration as equally important in understanding the essence of the relevant data.

The empirical focus of this study are three fully productive reflexivization patterns in Czech: generic–agent reflexive (ex.1), spontaneous event reflexive (2), and dispositional reflexive (3). These patterns are examined against the background of other grammatical devices — periphrastic passive, generic–agent constructions (cf. Panevova 1973), and dative–experiencer expressions — which may serve similar functions (e.g. agent–suppression, stative interpretation of action predicates) and may display some formal similarities as well (e.g. object promotion, dative case marking, distribution of impersonal verb morphology). Systematic analysis of the patterns 1–3 provides evidence that the nature of these reflexives goes well beyond issues of voice and/or transitivity, traditionally taken to be central to the proper description and analysis of reflexivization. Instead, minimally the following criteria emerge as relevant in formulating the morphosyntactic, semantic, and prosodic constraints that together regulate the structure and interpretation of each pattern:

– (in)animacy of the agent

– (in)ability to contain an instrumental phrase

– indefiniteness vs. genericity of the suppressed agent

– modal interpretation

– distribution of aspect

– role of exclamative prosody as a coding strategy (in the dispositional pattern)

– inherent verb semantics.

We can then draw a grammatical map of a network in which the three reflexive patterns as well as the non–reflexive constructions mentioned above overlap along specific formal and/or functional criteria.

The analysis and representation are carried out within the framework of Construction Grammar (e.g. Fillmore 1989, 1999), whose basic unit of analysis is a grammatical construction (a conventionalized pair of meaning and form). The paper demonstrates that the multi–layered architecture of Construction Grammar responds particularly well to the complexity of the data at hand. Moreover, its emphasis on the role of conventionalization in speakers' linguistic knowledge also allows us to highlight the cognitive dimension of linguistic structure. It confirms the hypothesis that (i) speakers rely on relatively complex grammatical patterns — constructions — in building linguistic expressions, (ii) linguistic expressions reflect the effects of interaction between constructions and the words that fill them, and (iii) grammar consists of networks of grammatical patterns related through shared properties, rather than being a more or less arbitrary collection of more or less arbitrary formal rules.


1 Sudy se plnily pivem tak, zhe...

barrell:NOM:PL:M REFL fill:PPL:PL:M beer:INS:SG:N so, that...

'This is how one filled the barrels with beer...'

2 Studna se naplnila vodou

well:NOM:SG:F REFL fill:PPL:SG:F water:INS:SG:F

'The well got filled with water.'

3 Tyhle sudy se vam budou plnit líp

this:NOM:PL:M barrel:NOM:PL:M REFL 2PL:DAT be:FUT:3PL fill:INF better

'These barrels will be easier for you to fill.'


Fillmore, Charles J. (1989). "Grammatical Construction Theory and the familiar dichotomies." In Language processing in social context, ed. by R. Dietrich & C.F. Graumann. Amsterdam: North–Holland/Elsevier. 17–38.

—. (1999). "Inversion and constructional inheritance." In Lexical and constructional aspects of linguistic explanation, ed. by Gert Webelhuth, Jean–Pierre Koenig & Andreas Kathol. Stanford, Ca: CSLI. 113–128.

Jakobson, Roman. (1957). Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb. Cambridge, Mass.: Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University.

Janda, Laura A. (1993). "The semantics of Russian and Czech Reflexives." In American Contributions to the Eleventh International Congress of Slavists, Bratislava.

Panevova, Jarmila. (1973). "Vety se vsheobecnym konatelem (Sentences with generic agents)." Studia Slavica Pragensia: 133–144.