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Latin reflexive pronouns at the crossroads of syntax and pragmatics

Les pronoms réfléchis à l’intersection de la syntaxe et de la pragmatique
Elena Zheltova
p. 211-218


L’étude est une tentative d’expliquer les occurrences des pronoms réfléchis latins (se et suus) qui ne sont pas en conformité avec les règles habituelles telles qu’elles apparaissent dans les grammaires latines. D’abord, il s’agit des cas où les antécédents des pronoms réfléchis ne sont pas les sujets de la proposition. Ces cas sont expliqués à l’aide du concept de « thème » de l’énoncé qui peut être co-référant avec le pronom réfléchi. Ensuite, on examine l’emploi des pronoms anaphoriques dans les positions syntaxiques où l’on s’attendrait à trouver un pronom réfléchi. Pour expliquer ces cas, la notion de « focus d’empathie » est introduite. Cette approche combine les aspects syntaxique et pragmatique et permet de reformuler la règle de l’emploi des pronoms réfléchis : le pronom réfléchi est toujours co-référant au thème de l’énoncé, mais il n’apparaît que là où il n’y a pas de conflit entre le thème et le focus d’empathie.

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Texte intégral

1. Introduction. Traditional approach to reflexive pronouns

1There are three types of reflexives in the world’s languages (Lichtenberk, 1994, p. 3504):

  1. nominal (nouns or pronouns),

  2. verbal (the reflexive marker is a part of the verb morphology),

  3. possessive (e.g. the possessive adjectives).

2Latin has all these types (Geniušienė, 1987, p. 241), but I will confine the topic of my paper to the nominal and possessive ones, i.e. se and suus.

  • 1 ​​Blatt, 1952, p. 138; Ernout and Thomas, 1953, p. 182-3; Hofmann and Szantyr, 1972, p. 174; Rieman (...)

3Traditional grammars of the Latin language consider the following uses of the reflexive pronouns to be regular:1

a) In the main clause for the purpose of coreference of its subject and object (the direct reflexive), as in (1) and (2):


Alexander, cum interemisset Clitum, familiarem suum, vix a se manus abstinuit. (Cic. Tusc. 4, 79)
‘Alexander, when he had slain his friend Clitus, scarcely refrained from laying hands on himself.’


Et illa quidem magicis suis artibus volens reformatur. (Apul. Met. 3, 22)
‘And she readily reshapes herself by means of her magic arts.’

  • 2 Frajzyngier, 1984, p. 126; Lichtenberk, 1994, p. 3505.

4This function is considered to be prototypical.2

b) In the subordinate clause or other embedded constructions for the coreference of a constituent with the subject of the matrix clause whose words, thoughts, or intentions it represents (the indirect reflexive) as in (3):


Сassius constituit ut ludi absente se fierent suo nomine. (Cic. Att. 15, 11, 2)
‘Cassius decided that the games would take place under his name when he was absent.’

5However, if one opens a book of any Latin author, one will find that Latin reflexive pronouns do not always follow these rules.

2. Exceptions to the rules

2. 1. Coreference with non-subject antecedent

6The first problem is that the antecedent of a Latin reflexive is not necessarily a grammatical subject at all. It can instead be a direct object (4), an indirect object (5), or a prepositional phrase (6):


Concedamus sane C. Caesari […] et […] tam hercule quam Brutum philosophiae suae relinquamus. (Tac. Dial. 21, 5)
‘We may, indeed, make allowance for Caius Julius Caesar […] and leave him indeed, just as we leave Brutus to his philosophy
.’ (transl. A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb)

7The reflexive pronoun suae is coreferent with the direct object Brutum.


Faustulo spes fuerat regiam stirpem apud se educari. (Liv. 1, 5, 5)
had entertained the suspicion that he was bringing up the children of the royal blood in his house.’

The pronoun se is coreferent with the possessive dative Faustulo.


A Caesare valde liberaliter invitor […] sibi ut sim legatus. (Cic. Att. 2, 18, 3)
‘I am very kindly invited by Caesar to be his legate.’

8In this case, the antecedent of the pronoun sibi is a prepositional phrase.

2. 2. Alternation of anaphoric and reflexive pronouns

9The second problem to be explained is the confusion of anaphoric and reflexive pronouns in syntactically similar contexts, that is, in some cases an anaphoric pronoun is used instead of the reflexive, which is expected according to the traditional grammar rules, as in (7):


(Liberi) mihi vero et propter indulgentiam meam et propter excellens eorum ingenium vita sunt mea cariores. (Cic. P. red. ad Quir. 2)
‘The kids are dearer to me than my life due to my forbearance and their exceptional talent.’

10The subject of the clause is liberi, but Cicero used the anaphoric eorum instead of the reflexive suum, although this is the very case where a reflexive is expected.

3. Syntactic approach

  • 3 Riemann, 1935, p. 27; Blatt, 1952, p. 139; Ernout and Thomas, 1953, p. 183; Woodcock, 1959, p. 24.

11The grammarians certainly suggest different explanations for such cases. They call them emphatic reflexives or claim that they refer to the logical rather than to the grammatical subject, i.e. to the person who is the center of the thought.3 After all, Ernout and Thomas (1953, p. 186) had to agree that Latin reflexives, at least indirect ones, were used not so strictly as it was ascribed to them by traditional grammars.

4. Non-syntactic approaches

  • 4 A similar explanation of some Russian reflexives was suggested by A. Timberlake, 1980.

12Inadequacy of the merely syntactic approach became evident for many scholars who, therefore, attempted to analyze “non-canonical” uses of reflexives from the semantic or pragmatic perspectives. Some notions and categories developed in general linguistics and linguistic typology were applied henceforth to explain the “puzzle” of Latin reflexive pronouns. Thus, J.-C. Milner (1978, p. 82) indicated that the reflexive se marked the most prominent person of the discourse (‘la personne distinguée’),4 while M. Fruyt (1987, p. 208; 213) underlined the higher agentivity (or the ‘source of process’ function) of the noun phrases, which could be antecedents of the reflexive pronouns. The idea of interaction between the grammatical-syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic levels in the functioning of Latin reflexives was put forward by M. Poirier (1989).

5. Pragmatic approach

5. 1. Topic control of reflexivization in Latin and Russian

  • 5 The example is from Puddu, 2007, p. 95.

13Some scholars stressed the importance of the pragmatic approach to Latin reflexives. Thus, A. Bertocchi (1989, p. 450) claimes that the pragmatic categories of contrast and topic can explain the use of the pronoun suus in contexts where it did not refer to the syntactical subject. Later, the notion of topic was applied to an indirect use of se and suus by Ch. Touratier (1994, p. 34 ff) and N. Puddu (2007, p. 95). They stated that the reflexive pronouns se and suus refered to the topic of the clause in which they occur, or to the topic of discourse (i.e. macrotopic) in cases of subordination, independently of their syntactic realization. Let us look at (8):5


Ariovistus respondit, si quid ipsi a Caesare opus est, sese ad eum venturum fuisse; si quid ille se velit, illum ad se venire oportere (Caes. Gall. 1, 34, 5).
‘Ariovistus replied that if he himself had needed anything from Caesar, he would have gone to him; and that if Caesar wanted anything from him he ought to come to him’ (transl. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn).

14In this example, Ariovistus is the macrotopic of the whole sentence, hence, the pronoun se is always used with reference to him.

15Now let us return to examples (4)-(6) to examine them in pragmatic perspective. I believe the reflexives suae, se and sibi in clauses (4)-(6), respectively, are determined by the topic rather than the subject control.

16It is evident that the basic principle of the use of Latin reflexive pronouns, i.e. the coreference with the subject, is only a special case of a more general principle of coreference with the topic, given the topic and the subject coincide. Ch. Touratier (1994, p. 34) stressed particular significance of the topic in the sentence and pointed at reflexives as special markers of such a role.

17To some extent, the principle of topic control is also at work in the Russian language. Actually, the use of reflexive pronouns in Russian is more common than in other Indo-European languages, including Latin, because they can refer to any person, not just to a third one. In other words, Russian reflexives sebya and svoj compete with the 1st and 2nd personal pronouns and personal possessive pronouns, respectively, for the coreference with a topicalized constituent. Moreover, this tendency has increased over time, and in modern Russian, reflexive pronouns are used much more frequently than, say, in 19th-century Russian (Paducheva, 2008, p. 204). It is worth noting that in modern Russian the use of the reflexive possessive pronoun instead of the personal possessive pronoun is obligatory wherever possible (i.e. not prohibited by the rules). In (9a) and (9b), the meaning of the two clauses is the same (‘I will take my book.’), but (9a) with the reflexive svoyu sounds more natural than (9b), which looks a bit archaic with its 1st pers. sg. possessive moyu.


a. Ya






‘I will take my book.’

b. Ya






‘I will take my book.’

18Despite some differences, Russian and Latin reflexives have a lot in common, and topic control seems to be the sine qua non for Russian reflexives as well. Let us look at examples (10a) and (10b), which are very similar at first glance, but differ crucially in one respect – the topicality of the antecedent.


a. On








‘He himself is the reason for the collapse of his own plans.’

b. Prichin-a









‘The reason for the collapse of his plans is he himself.’

19In (10a) the pronoun on ‘he’ is the topic of the clause; hence, the reflexive svoyih is used, while in (10b) on ‘he’ is the focus of the clause, so the reflexive svoyih is replaced by the 3 sg. possessive yego.

20As we have seen, both Russian and Latin reflexives are sensitive to the pragmatic function of the topic.

5. 2. Focus of empathy in Latin and in crosslinguistic perspective

21It has been observed that in some cases a reflexive pronoun is not used even if its antecedent is the topic, and an anaphoric pronoun is used instead of a reflexive one. There are quite a lot of examples presenting the confusion of anaphoric and reflexive pronouns in syntactically similar conditions, as in (11) and (12):


M. Papirius […] dicitur Gallo barbam suam permulcenti scipione eburneo in caput incusso iram movisse. (Liv. 5, 41, 9)
‘Marcus Papirius is said to have caused the fury of the Gaul who ruffled his beard, and to have hit his head with ivory stick.’


Cn. Pompeius […] cunctae Italiae cupienti et eius fidem imploranti signum dedit ut ad me restituendum Romam concurrerent. (Cic. Mil. 39)
‘Pompeius signaled throughout Italy, which was eager and appealing to his devotion, to flee to Rome to restore my rights.’

  • 6 Kuno, 1976; Kuno and Kaburaki, 1977.
  • 7 Yokoyama and Klenin, 1976; Paducheva, 2008.

22It is evident that both Papirius (11) and Pompeius (12) are the constituents with topic functions, and the syntactic positions of both constituents are very similar. Nevertheless, the former is coreferent with the reflexive, while the latter is the antecedent of the anaphoric. These examples demonstrate that topic control cannot explain all the occurrences of reflexives. For such cases there has been suggested the pragmatic function of empathy, i.e. the speaker’s identification with a person whose perspective he represents. This participant is called the focus of empathy. The notion of empathy was introduced by S. Kuno6 to explain some puzzling phenomena in Japanese, and then it was extended to similar phenomena in Russian,7 English (Zribi-Hertz, 1989), and other languages (Lyutikova, 2002). Empathy can vary from the objective representation of the event (zero empathy) to the absolute identification of the speaker’s and participant’s points of view. This category has its own hierarchies (Kuno and Kaburaki, 1977, p. 646-54).

  • 8 Corazza, 2004, p. 352; 357. The attempts to explain Latin indirect reflexives as logophoric pronoun (...)

23Seemingly, the category of empathy does not have universal definition, but can be expressed by different means and has different degrees of obligatoriness in the languages. Thus, in Japanese the speaker must necessarily take one’s point of view, and his choice determines the type of the verb used in the clause (Kuno and Kaburaki, 1977, p. 630). In some African languages, it is a logophoric pronoun that performs empathy function, which makes it similar to Latin reflexives in this respect.8 In the Indo-European languages, the focus of empathy does not crucially affect the grammatical structure, but does exist and has its own means of expression. The value of this category consists in that it enables us to understand many phenomena which seem inexplicable without it. For instance, it can be applied to explain the non-reflexive use of English self-pronouns, as in the example from J. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (13):


She remembered also that till the Netherfield family had quitted the country, he had told his story to no one but herself.

  • 9 The example is from Testelets, 2001, p. 464.

24In this passage, the reflexive pronoun herself is coreferent with the main character Elizabeth Bennet rather than with the subject of the clause it belongs to, because she is the focus of empathy.9

  • 10 The example is from Paducheva, 2008, p. 207.

25It is worth noting that Russian reflexive pronouns are also involved in expressing the focus of empathy. In (14) the choice between dlya sebya (reflexive pronoun) ‘for himself’ and dlya nego (non-reflexive 3rd pers. pronoun) ‘for him’ depends on who evaluates the complexity of the task – the referent of the subject, or the speaker:10







dlya seb-ya





for refl-gen













He always takes on the tasks which are difficult for himself, even if they are too difficult for him.’

26In the first part of the sentence, the evaluation of the task is done from the participant’s point of view – hence, the reflexive is used. In the last part, it is done from the author’s perspective; so, the anaphoric is used.

27Latin seems to be sensitive to the pragmatic category of empathy as well. It was first noticed by A. Bertocchi (1989, p. 454) who claimed that it was difficult to formulate fixed mechanical rules for the binding of the reflexives to possible antecedents, since the selection of the referent is strongly determined by the choice of the speaker (Bertocchi 1989, p. 456). On the contrary, my claim is that it is possible to formulate these rules.

28Let us return to examples (11) and (12). In (11) Papirius is a topic and at the same time the focus of empathy, that is why the reflexive suam is used. Conversely, in (12) Pompeius is just the constituent with the topic function, however the focus of empathy rests on Cicero himself, so the anaphoric is used.

6. Preliminary conclusion

29The comparison of (11) and (12) demonstrates that a reflexive pronoun can be used only when the topic of the clause and the focus of empathy coincide, i.e. there is no conflict between them. In the event of such a conflict, the use of a reflexive is impossible.

30Taking into account this rule, let us have a fresh look at example (7) where the conflict between the topic of the clause and the focus of empathy prohibits the use of the reflexive. Although liberi is the topic of the clause, it is Cicero himself who is the focus of empathy, because his children are extremely gifted in his rather than their own opinion.

31Classical authors provide us with an array of examples confirming our hypothesis. The following example triggered off a large number of comments because of the alternation of the reflexive and anaphoric pronouns referring to the same antecedent Helvetii which is the macrotopic of this passage:


(Helvetii) persuadent Rauricis et Tulingis et Latovicis, finitimis suis, uti eodem usi consilio […] una cum iis proficiscantur ; Boiosque […] receptos ad se socios sibi asciscunt. (Caes. Gall. 1, 5, 4)
‘They persuade the Raurici, and the Tulingi, and the Latobrigi, their neighbors, to adopt the same plan […] and to set out with them; and they admit to their party and unite to themselves as confederates the Boii.’ (transl. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

32The anaphoric iis is used instead of the reflexive secum, because the neighbors rather than the Helvetii themselves are the focus of empathy in the subordinate clause, while the topic of the passage is Helvetii. But in the following part of the sentence, the focus of empathy changed, which is signalled by the use of the reflexives ad se and sibi. Some scholars try to explain the confusion of the pronouns as the author’s intention to avoid ambiguity (Sobolevskiy, 1946, p. 51). To begin with, there is no ambiguity in this passage at all, and then, to tell the truth, ambiguity is not a matter of concern for Latin authors (Ernout and Thomas, 1953, p. 183). I will rather share the opinion of T. R. Holmes, who recommends “not to lecture Caesar for inaccuracy”, but to observe how he used the language of which he was a master, and to modify the grammatical rules (Holmes, 1914, p. 6).

33The next passage written by the master of Latin is very interesting, too:


Allobrogibus sese vel persuasuros, quod nondum bono animo in populum Romanum viderentur, existimabant, vel vi coacturos, ut per fines eos ire paterentur. (Caes. Gall. 1, 6, 3)
‘They thought that they should either persuade the Allobroges, because they did not seem as yet well-affected toward the Roman people, or compel them by force to allow them to pass through their territories.’ (transl. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

34The pronoun eos is chosen instead of se in the last part of the sentence, because the Allobroges rather than the Helvetii are in the focus of the author’s empathy.

35Passages like these were discussed by many scholars who, after all, had to agree that they could not be explained convincingly neither with the help of the notion of agent (Fruyt, 1987, p. 213) nor as the ‘author’s error’ (Poirier, 1989, p. 348 ff). So, the category of empathy is likely to be the only plausible explanation of such occurrences.

7. Some diachronic observations

36The categories under consideration continued operating in the “silver Latin”, as in example (17):


Immo supercilia etiam profert de pyxide sciteque iacturae liniamenta secuta totam illi formam suam reddidit. (Petron. 110, 2)
‘Then producing some eyebrows from a vanity box, she skillfully traced out the lines of the lost features and restored him to his proper comeliness.’ (transl. W. C. Firebaugh)

37Petronius focused his empathy on Giton rather than on Tryphaina’s maid, and for this reason he chose the reflexive suam instead of the anaphoric illius, because suam is coreferential with the topicalized constituent illi.

38Over time, however, this harmonious system had fallen into decay and had ceased to be used in Latin by the time of Justinus (III century AD):


(Lycurgus) iureiurando obligat civitatem nihil eos de eius legibus mutaturos priusquam reverteretur. (Iustin. 3, 3, 11)
‘Lycurgus made people swear that they would not change anything from his laws until he had returned.’

39We would expect de suis legibus instead of de eius legibus according to the rule of topic control and focus of empathy, but this is not the case.

8. Conclusion

40The pragmatic categories of topic and empathy enable us to explain the non-canonical use of reflexives in Latin and to formulate universal rule for them. The rule of selection works according to the following algorithm of competition and interaction of topic and focus of empathy: the reflexive is always coreferent with the topic of the clause or the sentence, but its use is possible if there is no conflict of the topic and focus of empathy, i.e. in two cases:

  1. The topic and the focus of empathy coincide.

  2. The focus of empathy is missing.

41If the focus of empathy coincides with the constituent, which is not the topic, an anaphoric pronoun is used instead of a reflexive one.

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Bertocchi, A., 1989, The role of antecedents of Latin anaphors, in G. Calboli (ed.), Subordination and other Topics in Latin, Amsterdam, p. 441-461.

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1 ​​Blatt, 1952, p. 138; Ernout and Thomas, 1953, p. 182-3; Hofmann and Szantyr, 1972, p. 174; Riemann, 1935, p. 24-5.

2 Frajzyngier, 1984, p. 126; Lichtenberk, 1994, p. 3505.

3 Riemann, 1935, p. 27; Blatt, 1952, p. 139; Ernout and Thomas, 1953, p. 183; Woodcock, 1959, p. 24.

4 A similar explanation of some Russian reflexives was suggested by A. Timberlake, 1980.

5 The example is from Puddu, 2007, p. 95.

6 Kuno, 1976; Kuno and Kaburaki, 1977.

7 Yokoyama and Klenin, 1976; Paducheva, 2008.

8 Corazza, 2004, p. 352; 357. The attempts to explain Latin indirect reflexives as logophoric pronouns are not rare in modern studies and look rather convincing (Pompei, 2002; Viti, 2010).

9 The example is from Testelets, 2001, p. 464.

10 The example is from Paducheva, 2008, p. 207.

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Elena Zheltova

Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics
St. Petersburg State University

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