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The emergence of English reflexive verbs: an analysis based on the Oxford English Dictionary1


Present-Day English is generally assumed to possess only a handful of lexicalized reflexive verbs (absent oneself from, pride oneself on, etc.) and to use reflexive pronouns neither for the marking of motion middles nor the derivation of anticausative (decausative) verbs. Such middle uses of reflexive markers (non-argument reflexives) are widespread in other European languages. Based on corpus evidence, Geniušienė (1987), Peitsara (1997) and Siemund (2010) demonstrate that English reflexive pronouns do occur in these functions and offer extensive lists of the verbs involved. I here follow up the historical development of these verbs from Middle English to Present-Day English. My analysis is based on a survey of the relevant verb entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (222 verbs), complemented by an examination of the OED quotation base. My study shows that the number of reflexive verbs in English has gradually, but steadily, increased since the emergence of complex reflexives (myself, yourself, etc.) in Middle English. They often result from lexicalization processes, but the data also show more regular patterns indicative of grammatical processes. The Oxford English Dictionary proves to be a rich and highly valuable data source for carrying out serious grammatical analyses.

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I would like to thank Charlotte Brewer, Hans-Olav Enger, Volker Gast, Ekkehard König and John Simpson for very helpful feedback on an earlier version of this paper. Moreover, I am extremely grateful to Maike Berger and Hanne Brandt for their help in retrieving the data. Last but not least, I would like to acknowledge the constructive and challenging criticism of two anonymous ELL referees and the excellent editorial support. All remaining errors are my own.

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