Russian Reflexive Verbs
Despite their name, reflexive verbs do much more than reflect the reference of the subject in the object of a sentence. In fact, reflexive verbs are responsible for five distinct grammatical functions. The reflexive suffix -ся may mark any of the following functions:
1. Genuine Reflexive Он купает-ся. He is bathing (himself). 2. Passive Voice Правила здесь соблюдаются. Rules are followed here. 3. Reciprocal Они встретились в саду. They met in the garden. 4. Optative Voice Мне не спится. I'm not sleepy. 5. Middle Voice Комары кусаются The mosquitos are biting.
This page will help you sort these types of uses of the reflexive verb. But first, let's take a look at a pronunciational variation it is subject to.
The suffix -ся is a reduction of the reflexive pronoun себя but it is reduced even more after vowels. The full suffix is pronounced only after consonants; after vowels, it is pronounced (and spelled) -сь. Take a look at the conjugation of бояться, a verb that only occurs with this suffix.
я боюсь "I'm afraid" мы боимся "we're afraid" ты боишься "you're afraid" вы боитесь "yall're afraid" он(а,о) боится "s/he/it's afraid" они боятся "they're afraid" он боялся "he was afraid" она боялась "she was afraid" оно боялось "it was afraid" они боялись "they were afraid"
Notice that if the verb form ends on a vowel, -ся is reduced to -сь in all the tenses. (This reduction does not take place after the adjectival endings of participles, however, even when they end on vowels.)
Real reflexive verbs are verbs whose subject and direct object are identical, that is, refer to the identical thing in the real world. In English we often ignore the difference. We use the same verb to say, The barber shaves my brother and My brother shaves, even though there is an understood direct object in the second sentence whose reference the same as that of the subject, my brother. Other verbs require a reflexive pronoun in English, e.g. He cut his brother versus He cut himself. You can't simply say, He cut in English in this case to mean "he cut himself" as we can say He shaved.
In Russian it is never possible to ignore reflexivity. Because Russian has such an strong case system, distinguishing subjects and objects is very important. However, as in all languages, repetition is frowned upon, so, Russian uses a suffix on the verb to indicate where a direct object is identical with the subject. That suffix is -ся. Here are some examples to illustrate the point.
Normal Transitive Verb Reflexive Correlate Александра купает детей.
Alexandra is bathing the kids.
Alexandra is bathing (herself).
Борис Сергеевич бреет брата.
Boris Sergeevich is shaving his brother.
Борис Сергеевич бреется.
Boris Sergeevich is shaving (himself).
Маша одевает дочку.
Masha is dressing her daughter.
Masha is dressing (herself).
Паша умывает собаку.
Pasha is washing up the dog.
Pasha is washing up.
Шимпанзе причёсывает друга.
The chimpanzee is combing her friend.
The chimpanzee is combing herself.
Reciprocal Reflexive Verbs
Just as -ся imitates the sense of the reflexive pronoun себя on the reflexive reflexive verb, it can also imitate the meaning of the reciprocal pronouns друг друга. That is its function when it marks reciprocal reflexive verbs. Rather than indicate that the direct object and subject are the same, the reciprocal verb indicates that the subjects of the verb carry out its activity on each other. Notice that this implies that the subject of reciprocal reflexive verbs must refer to no more or fewer than two objects. Here are some examples of what I mean.
Reciprocal Verb Reсiprocal Verb Борис и Александр боролись.
Boris and Alexandr wrestled (each other).
Мы скоро увидимся.
We will soon see each other (meet).
Анна и Зина втретились в городе.
Anna and Zina met (each other) in town.
Они вседа ссорятся.
They constantly argue (with each other).
Анна и Зина познакомились в Минске.
Anna and Zina met (each other) in Minsk.
Они совещались до начала работы.
They conferred before beginning the job.
The reciprocal use of the reflexive verb is most often associated with the prefix пере-, as the following examples illustrate.
Normal Transitive Verb Prefixed Reflexive Correlate Они пишут друг другу.
They write each other.
Борис и Сергей ругали друг друга.
Boris and Sergei argued at each other.
Борис и Сергей переругались.
Boris and Sergei exchanged words.
Мама и папа взглянули друг на друга.
Mom and dad glanced at each other.
Мама и папа переглянулись.
Mom and dad exchanged glances.
Мафиози выстрелили друг в друга.
The mafiosi shot at each other.
The mafiosi exchanged fire.
Passive Reflexive Verbs
The passive voice is a verb form that allows what is semantically the direct object to become the subject. The subject, if it is included, is expressed in the instrumental case. Passive constructions are used when the topic of the conversation is the direct object of the sentence someone wishes to express. (The topic of a conversation usually starts the sentences that make them up.)
Russians use the passive voice far less than we do in English. The reason is that Russians prefer third person indefinite clauses like They make cars in Detroit, which are more indefinite since in Russian the indefinite they may be omitted: В Детроите делают машины. However, when they do use passive clauses, they must observe two different construction types: one for imperfective verbs and another for perfective ones.
If the verb is perfective, Russians must use the Past passive participle in a construction with some form of "be" (быть), just as we do in English: предложение было полно обсуждено "the proposal was fully discussed." However, if the verb is imperfective, passivity is indicated by the same reflexive suffix we have been examining on this page: предложение сейчас обсуждается "the proposal is being discussed now." Here are some more examples.
Active Imperfective Passive Imperfective Портной кроит костюм.
The tailor is making him a suit.
Костюм кроится портным.
The suit is being made by a tailor.
В Москве новые дома строят.
They are building new houses in Moscow.
В Москве новые дома строятся.
New houses are being built in Moscow.
Зеркало отражает свет.
The mirror reflects the light.
Свет отражается зеркалом.
The light is reflected by the mirror.
Солдаты собирают картошку.
Soldiers are gathering potatoes.
Картошка собирается солдатами.
The potatoes are being gathered by soldiers.
Remember, you can't say *Картошка собралась солдатами in Russian for the verb is in the perfective aspect. Only imperfective verbs may be used to form passives with the suffix -ся. To say The potatoes were gathered by the soldiers you must use the past passive participle: картошка была собрана солдатами.
Optative Reflexive Verbs
The optative mood is one which suggests a desire or inclination to do something. In English we say I would like to V or I feel like V-ing in the same situations where the optative would be used in languages with this mood. Russian optatives are always impersonal constructions with the subject in the dative case followed by the 3rd person singular form of the verb. In English, we would say I'm sleepy, for example, meaning I feel like sleeping; Russians would say мне спится. Here are some more examples to consider. (Notice that this mood is usually used in the negative.)
Ивану сегодня не работается. Ivan doesn't feel like working today. Мне не сидится дома. I don't like to stay home. Мне не пишется сейчас. I don't feel like writing now.
The very most commonly used in this construction is хотеть "want". Мне (не) хочется "I don't feel like . . ." is a milder form of я (не) хочу "I don't want . . . " and is used as frequently as the stronger alternate.
Another way of expressing the optative in Russian is with the conditional: я бы поел кашу "I feel like eating kasha" or "I wouldn't mind eating some kasha".
Middle Voice Reflexive Verbs
Middle voice is a reflexive form which some transitive verbs require when no direct object is used. It is particularly associated with verbs expressing the unpleasant activities of animals.
Regular Active Voice Middle Voice Собака кусает детей.
The dog bites children.
The dog bites.
Корова бодает деревья.
The cow butts trees.
The cow butts.
Утюг жжёт пальцы.
The iron will burn your fingers.
The iron burns.
Ёжик колет врагов.
The hedgehog pricks its enemies.
The hedgehog is prickly.
Lexical Reflexive Verbs
Finally, there are a few verbs that simply have the suffix -ся for no partcular reason. They are simply memorized that way. Some are transitive; others are not. If a verb with the suffix -ся is transitive, however, its object will not take the accusative case but will require one of the other, oblique cases.
Verbs on -ся боя-ся "be afraid"
Собака боится детей.
The dog is afraid of children.
Не смейся надо мной!
Don't laugh at me!
горди-ся "be proud"
Ваня гордится сыном.
Vanya is proud of his son.
Митя кажется больным.
Mitya seems sick.
ост(ав)ай-ся|остан-ся "remain, stay"
Он остался дома.
He stayed home.
просыпай-ся|просну-ся "wake up"
Сегодня я проснулся поздно.
Today I woke up late.
станови-ся|стан- "begin, become"
It's getting darker
There are others which you will have to look out for. Unfortunately, they simply have to be memorized.
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© 1996 Robert Beard