Monday, September 23, 2019

Detail #382: Restrictions on Reflexives

Soo... I encountered a phrase from somewhere that launched some thoughts.

You dare try to control Aughra? Aughra can barely control Aughra!
Apparently an old-timey meme from Dark Crystal. I started thinking about reflexives, and in this case, my intuition is that since it's a person speaking of herself in the third person it would be really weird if there was a reflexive pronoun there.

Basically, my conclusion is: nouns that actually have first person referents cannot be referred to by reflexive pronouns, but will prefer to take the whole noun anew.

One could imagine other similar restrictions, with a variety of justifications. Let's have some ideas:

1. Types of Conditioning Factors
The following factors seem like reasonably likely to restrict permissibility of reflexives:
  • Animacy. It may seem weird to think of inanimate things acting upon themselves? 
  • Certain types of verbs may not permit reflexives due to the normal reflexive meaning being too unrealistic. In such cases that the reflexive meaning indeed is intended, some more cumbersome construction where other verbs combine to form the intended meaning are required.
  • The referent of the noun. The English example above is weird - a proper noun that is coreferent with the first person singular pronoun - but similar restrictions based on some notion of courtesy may exist.
2. Types of  resolution
  • The animacy restriction could easily be resolved by making the inanimate noun the object of either a subjectless verb, the subject of a passive verb or the object of a verb with a dummy subject. Repeating the noun might also be reasonable.
  • Repeating the noun seems reasonable with courtesy-based restrictions, but one might also use some kind of smaller set of nouns that can refer to the same person: titles, for instance.
  • Where the verb is the restricting factor, one might imagine separate verb phrases added after a conjunction that take the reflexive marker ('the man helped it, did for himself' where it is a dummy pronoun), or again, the use of nouns that share referents ('his majesty helped the king'). Here, some extra marking would be needed whenever ambiguities arise, but words such as 'the same' or 'the other' probably would be available.

1 comment:

  1. Just an addition regarding typological variables: Bresnan et al. (2016: Ch. 11) try to break down anaphoric binding of reflexives into the features [+/0/- subjective] ("whether or not there must be a subject antecedent in the (minimal finite) clause"), [+/0/- nuclear] ("whether or not there must be an argument antecedent in the minimal nucleus", i.e. in the minimal functional frame of reference the pronoun can access), and [+/0/- logophoric] ("whether or not the pronoun refers to one whose speech, thoughts, or feelings are represented in indirect discourse, from that person's own point of view"). Meshing this functionally oriented typology with the semantic and pragmatic considerations above may produce interesting results, I suppose.

    Bresnan, Joan et al. 2016. Lexical-functional syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.