English Reflexive Nominals

Theoretical and experimental work into the internal structure of reflexive pronouns like ‘yourself’

While much of the research on reflexivity has investigated the distribution of reflexive nominals in larger structures, this set of investigations deals in the internal structure of reflexive nominals in English.

A foundational finding in this research is that nominals like ourselves are composed of at least three morphemes: a lexical root √SELF, a possessive pronoun (our), and a morpheme that triggers allomorphy and allosemy in reflexive contexts (a functional head, REFL⁰). This is argued for in Ahn and Kalin 2018 based on well-attested form alternations like ‘himself’ ~ ‘his damn self’, alongside various constraints on when this pronominal alternation is (un)available.

A syntactic analysis of English 'yourself'

Building on this, Ahn 2019 (et seqq) further explores the nominal structure of anaphors through the lens of φ-features. It has been widely assumed that the φ-features of bound pronouns must φ-match their antecedents. While generally true, there are several domains where φ-mismatches are regularly (and commonly) attested – and mismatch is constrained in informative ways. The patterns indicate that there are two derivational pathways for bound pronouns, such that 3.sg bound pronouns necessarily involve extra derivational machinery.

As a matter of sociosyntax in the same domain, Conrod, Schlutz & Ahn forthcoming (et seqq) explore the distribution of (competing) forms themself and themselves, in various cases where the antecedent is a 3.sg nominal. In addition to the expected effects of linguistic ideologies and social attitudes, this work finds larger effects of nominal type (i.e., functional structure) and dialect grouping.
A set of boxplots showing variation in ratings of themself and themselves in different syntactic contexts, across dialect groups

some work in this project

  1. Conrod, Kirby, Ruth Schultz & Byron Ahn. In Press. How many selves for them? In NELS 52: Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistics Society,
  2. Ahn, Byron & Kirby Conrod. 2022, March. Three ways to rate themself. Talk presented at 35th Annual Conference on Human Sentence Processing (formerly the ‘CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing’). University of California, Santa Cruz.
  3. Ahn, Byron. 2019. Features, Identity, and ‘Yourself.’ In Maggie Baird & Jonathan Pesetsky (eds.), NELS 49: Proceedings of the 49th Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistics Society, Vol. 1, 15–24.
  4. Ahn, Byron. 2019, April. Anaphor Binding and Phi-(Mis)Matches in English. Talk presented at DISCO (Dependency in Syntactic Covariance): Phi-agreement, reference and case. Universiy of Leipzig.
  5. Ahn, Byron & Laura Kalin. 2018. What’s in a (English) Reflexive? In NELS 48: Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistics Society, Vol. 1, 1–13.