Reflexives in Wambule Rai

Abstract. By Jean Robert Opgenort, 2000. Paper presented at the 6th Himalayan Languages Symposium. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA, 15 June 2000.

The lexical meaning of certain verb stems includes the notion of reflexivity. Markers of related semantic domains: (a) similaritive morpheme <-se ~ -s> ‘exactly’, e.g. uŋgu-s (I/we-exactly) ‘exactly me, us’; and (b) ɗaŋma ‘self’, e.g. a-ɗaŋma-s (my-self-exactly) ‘myself’.

Reflexives in other Kiranti languages

  • Proto Tibeto-Burman by Benedict (1972; 98-99). "Suffixed -s(i) ~ -so used to form a type of ‘middle voice’ is found in several languages. Examples: Kanauri krapsi ~ skrapsi ‘cry together’, tongsi ‘strike oneself or one another’, sarsi ‘rise’ (sar ‘raise’), zasi ‘be eaten’, dis ‘enter, lie down’, bo:si ‘forget’...."
  • Yamphu (Eastern Kiranti) by Rutgers (1998; 168-169). The auxiliary <cimmus- ~ -cimmu> serves to express a reflexive activity.
  • Dumi (Western Kiranti) by van Driem (1993; 125-129). The morpheme <-nsi> occurs in reflexive forms where it indexes a reflexive relationship.
  • Bahing (Western Kiranti) by Hodgson (1857). The reflexive is listed as ‘middle voice’. The reflexive or middle is formed by adding a suffix <-s ~ -si> to the verb stem.
  • Hayu (Western Kiranti) by Michailovsky (1981: 124). “L’emploi du reflechi est frequent, s’étendant aux cas où le subject fait quelque chose “pour lui-même” aussi bien que “à lui-même”, et, au non- singulier, aux actions aussi bien reciproques que reflechies. Les formes reflechies s’accordent avec un seul actant, le suject, qui apparaît au cas absolutif.” The element /ts-/ could be identified as reflexive marker.


The lexical meaning of a particular verb stem includes the notion of reflexivity. Wambule verbs may have one or more stems and can be classified in various conjugations on the basis of paradigmatic stem alternation in simplex forms. A distinction can be made between intransitive, reflexive and transitive conjugations.

The reflexive morpheme <-si> intervenes between verb stem and agreement marker in third person singular reflexive forms: The morpheme <-si> is only a defunct marker of reflexivity: it fills some kind of morphophonological gap created by the phonologically empty third person singular subject morpheme. Arguments:

  • “A reflexive marker is a productive grammatical device that is used obligatorily to mark reflexive contexts in at least the third person.” (Kemmer 1993). The reflexive morpheme <-si> does not occur in dual and plural third person forms.
  • The reflexive morpheme <-si> is optional in third person singular forms of compounds which consist of a main reflexive verb stem plus (i) a suffixed verb of motion or transportation or (ii) the intensifying aspectivizer <-swa>.

The lexical meaning of certain verb stems includes the notion of reflexivity. Homophony occurs: tumcam is the so-called ‘object participle’ of either <tum-> vr-c ‘strike, beat, hit (for) oneself’ or <tum-> vn-2 ‘finish’.

Classes of reflexive verbs

  • verbs which end in a short vowel, e.g. <bwa-> vr ‘have’.
  • verbs which end in a long vowel, e.g. <ca:-> vr ‘place oneself upwards, climb, mount’.
  • verbs which end in the nasal consonant /m/, e.g. <kwam-> vr ‘cover, wrap around oneself (e.g. clothes)’.
  • verbs which end in the liquid /l, r/ or in a diphthong, e.g. <cei-> vr ‘teach oneself, learn’.

Notion of reflexivity

Reflexivity is the linguistic expression of clusters of distinct situation types that are semantically related to one another and fall within one semantic category, namely that of the reflexive. In Wambule, the notion of reflexivity extends to a vast number of semantic domains of which several can be hypothesised to be related on the basis of:

  • number of participants in the event;
  • relations of the interactions among these participants;
  • the participants’ relation to the event and its affect on participants;
  • affectedness of the participant which is typically coded as the grammatical (reflexive) subject; and
  • degree of elaboration of events (Kemmer 1993).

The following domains can be hypothesised:

  • actions or states evoking an agent-Initiator and a patient-Endpoint which are co-referential. This domain includes direct reflexives, e.g. <sei-> vr ‘kill oneself, commit suicide’, and body middles, including grooming (actions which are carried out on the body), nontranslational motion (change in configuration of the body or a part of the body), change in body posture (change in position of the body with respect to a location), and translational motion (motion through space from one location), e.g. <mwar-> vr ‘wash oneself’, <gum-> vr ‘bend (for) oneself’, <ca:-> vr ‘place oneself upwards, climb, mount’ and <ɓwar-> vr ‘emerge, go out, come out’.
  • actions or a states evoking three participants, i.e. an agent-Initiator, a patient and a recipient-Endpoint, of which the agent-Initiator and the recipient-Endpoint are co-referential (self-beneficiary). This domain includes indirect reflexives, for an event which one accidentally performs for one’s own benefit, e.g. <kho-> vr ‘cook for oneself (e.g. rice)’, and indirect middles, for an event which one normally or necessarily performs for one’s own benefit, e.g. <cei-> vr ‘teach oneself, learn’.
  • events in which there is no clear co-referentiality between any Initiator and Endpoint of the verbal action. This domain includes passive reflexives, which are characterised by defocusing the semantic Agent, e.g. <him-> vr ‘to be seen’, reflexive verbs, which can likewise express general attributive characteristics of participants, e.g. <jo-> vr ‘to seem, look like, appear, be, be like’, and verb that express reciprocity. The reflexive verb <pu-> vr ‘to do, make oneself’ is also used with a preverb expressing the main semantics of the proposition in the expression of reciprocity or mutual relationship between Initiator and Endpoint.

Benedict, Paul
1972. Sino-Tibetan: a conspectus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Driem, George van
1993. A grammar of Dumi. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hodgson, Brian Houghton
1857. ‘Comparative vocabulary of the languages of the broken tribes of Népál’, in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal XXVI: 333-371.

Kemmer, Susanne
1993. The middle voice. Typological studies in language 23 (A revision of the author’s thesis (doctoral) - Stanford University, 1988). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Michailovsky, Boyd
1981. Grammaire de la langue Hayu (Nepal). (Tibeto-Burman text). Berkeley: University of California.

Rutgers, Roland
1998. Yamphu. Grammar, texts & lexicon. Research School CNWS. Leiden: The Netherlands.