Verbs: Reflexive

Eric requested this one today, so if you were curious about how reflexive verbs worked and were wondering when I’d get around to posting about it, you can thank him for requesting it! :)


Up until now, I’ve only talked about four classes of verbs in Latvian: the three conjugations (short, long and mixed) and the irregular verbs. There is another “class” called the reflexive that is sort of an “add-on” to the regular classes of verbs. (Well, I think of it as a class. This is not grammatically correct, but it works for me because it is another set of endings for me to remember.)

What are Reflexive Verbs

Reflexive verbs are verbs that reflect their action back onto the doer. Generally speaking, anyway. This can be specific to the definition and I’ve found that some of them don’t really “fit” that “reflective” action in my mind.

To create a reflexive verb (or identify one), you add -ies to the infinitive of the regular verb.

Here’s a very common one: mācīt –> mācīties

How does it work? Adding the reflexive ending does not change the conjugation the verb falls in. It only causes the action the verb would take to reflect back onto the subject.

So, we have mācīt, a third (or mixed) conjugation verb, which means to teach. If we add -ies to the end of it, we get mācīties, still a third (or mixed) conjugation verb. Mācīties still indicates the concept of teaching, but since we have to reflect the action back to the subject, it means to teach oneself. If you teach yourself, that would mean you are learning. Thus mācīties means to learn.

Let’s see them in action:

Es mācu latviešu valodu. –> I am teaching Latvian.
Es mācos latviešu valodu. –> I am learning Latvian.

The reflexive verb changed the entire meaning of the sentence, yet it is not used any differently. This is because a reflexive is just a verb with a different jacket on.

Not all verbs have reflexive forms and not all reflexive verbs have standard forms.

Domāt, for example, means to think. Domāties, which I think makes perfect sense as “to think about oneself”, is not a word. Apparently, because you can use domāt to think about yourself, domāties is considered unnecessary.

Viņš domā par futbolu. –> He thinks about soccer.

Iedomāties, which means to imagine, can be parsed from ie + domāt + ies = into + to think + reflexive. Iedomāt, on the other hand, is not a real word because imagining something externally to yourself is basically impossible outside of fiction.

Viņš iedomājās futbola maču. –> He imagined a soccer match.

Reflexive verbs don’t always correspond to their non-reflexive counterparts’ definition.

Let’s look at atminēt, a second conjugation verb, which means to guess or to solve a riddle. Add -ies to the end and you get atminēties.

Now, does it make sense if we look at it from the perspective of reflecting it back to the subject to say “to guess about oneself”? Not really. This is where the “reflecting” part of reflexives tends to break down.

What atminēties actually means is to remember or to recall. There is a very tenuous connection there, but frankly, I wouldn’t have guessed from just the ending!

Reflexives should always reflect back to a person or thing capable of performing the action.

You may already know pārdot or to sell, an essential verb to know (along with my essential shopping noun: izpārdošana – clearance sale)

Applying pārdoties (to sell itself/oneself) to an item being sold instead of the seller is considered a classic mistake because reflexives should refer to a person or object capable of performing the action. Items being sold are not generally considered capable as they are sold by someone rather than themselves.

Now, in English, we think of this as a great thing – if an object “sells itself”, the money should be rolling in! However, in Latvian, someone should be selling that thing because pārdot/pārdoties discuss the act of receiving money for an item. An object can’t take money for itself. (Colloquially, a vending machine could be used as the subject but the can of Coke could not be.)

Usage

So, I’ve talked a lot about what reflexives are and aren’t. Now, how do you use them?

Very simple: exactly like every other verb. There is no difference in usage. You can still drop the pronoun, you can still find the verb anywhere in a line of poetry, it still must agree with its subject, it still has tense, voice and number. The 3rd person forms are still identical. It still follows the same rules for conjugation and identification. In short, it is a verb.

Reflexives do, however, have their very own special set of endings to add onto the verb.

Interestingly, they don’t change much. I think this is why you don’t see very much in-depth discussion in the books about them. Just because the definition of a reflexive might indicate that the action reflects back does not make the verb itself function differently.

Generally speaking, the endings are added on to the standard verb’s plural endings and replace the singular endings. If doing so would result in a doubled vowel, a -j- is inserted to prevent it.

The reflexive’s endings are the same across past, present and future tenses. The reflexive ending just shows you that it is reflexive. It doesn’t show you what the verb is doing as far as tense goes and offers little in the way of person or number information. You will likely rely on the underlying verbal structure for tense, person, and number information.

The endings are as follows:

Pronoun Ending Example
Es -os Es ceļos
Tu -ies Tu atminies
Viņš/Viņa -ās Viņš mostās
Mēs -ies Mēs iedomājamies
Jūs -ies Jūs mācāties
Viņi/Viņas -ās Viņas rotājās

Unsurprisingly, I find that these can be somewhat difficult to tell apart from nouns on vocabulary I don’t know yet.

How to Conjugate

Here’s how to conjugate a reflexive in comparison to its non-reflexive counterpart in present, past and future. You can also find this on the conjugation chart.

Example shown: mācīt vs. mācīties

mācīt || mācīties
tagadne pagātne nākotne || tagadne pagātne nākotne
Es

mācu mācīju mācīšu || mācos mācījos mācīšos
Tu

māci mācīji mācīsi || mācies mācījies mācīsies
Viņš/Viņa

māca mācīja mācīs || mācās mācījās mācīsies
Mēs

mācām mācījām mācīsim || mācāmies mācījāmies mācīsimies
Jūs

mācāt mācījāt mācīsiet
mācīsit
|| mācāties mācījāties mācīsieties
mācīsities
Viņi/Viņas

māca mācīja mācīs || mācās mācījās mācīsies
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