‘Reflexemes’ – a first cross-linguistic insight into how and why reflexive constructions encode emotions

Alex Stephenson, Maïa Ponsonnet, Marc Allassonnière-Tang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article presents the first study on reflexive expressions having lexicalized an emotional meaning, as in the English example enjoy oneself. Such lexicalized forms, which we call ‘reflexemes’, occur in a number of genetically unrelated languages worldwide. Here we interrogate the cross-linguistic distribution and semantics of reflexemes, based on a sample of 58 languages from 6 genetic groups throughout Europe, Australia, and Asia. Reflexemes exhibit uneven distribution in this sample. Despite the presence of reflexemes across all three continents, European languages generally display much larger inventories. Based on our language sample’s contrasts, we hypothesize that these disparities could be driven by: the form of reflexive markers; their semantic range, including colexifications with anticausative constructions; and their longevity, with ancient, cognate European markers fostering accumulation of reflexemes via inheritance and borrowing. As for semantics, reflexemes target comparable emotions across languages. Specifically, categories labelled ‘Good feelings’, ‘Anger’, ‘Worry’, ‘Bad feelings’ and ‘Fear’ are consistently most prevalent. These tendencies apply across our sample, with no sign of family- or continent-specific semantic tendency. The observed semantic distribution may reflect universal lexicalization tendencies not specific to reflexemes, perhaps combined with an emphasis on self-evaluation and other social emotions imparted by reflexive semantics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-188
Number of pages48
JournalSTUF - Language Typology and Universals
Issue number1
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Apr 2024


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