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On the syntax of reflexives in Yoruba: a descriptive perspective

Joseph Dele Atoyebi

atoyebijoseph@yahoo.com
Abstract
Yoruba is a West Benue-Congo language (Williamson and Blench 2000), spoken
mainly in the South-West region of Nigeria by an estimated 30 million speakers

who speak the language as first language (Bamgbose 2008). In this paper, we are
interested in examining the syntax of reflexives in Yoruba. The study of

reflexives is not novel to Yoruba (Oladiipo and Solveiga 2005, Lawal 2006, and
an online questionnaire filled in by Ades2ola 2008). This present study deviates
from earlier studies because it undertakes a descriptive approach to the

understanding of the most important propeties and the distribution of reflexives


in Yoruba.

Typologically, Yoruba belongs to the group of languages in which the

lexical source of the reflexive is contained in the expression of a body part, i.e,

the word for body ara, which combines with a possessive pronoun. By reason of
the fact that the reflexive occurs in a possessive frame, the final vowel of ara is
always lengthened to reflect possession, hence, araa X. Prosodically, in the

singular person forms of the reflexive pronoun in Yoruba, the third person

singular is different from other persons based on its different tone pattern. It has
a mid-low tone pattern, while other person forms have a low-mid tone pattern.
On the other hand, with the plural person forms, the form of the 2nd person

plural is different. It has a mid-high tone pattern, while other person forms have
only a mid tone which spreads all the way to the possessive pronoun.

Interestingly, the tone patterns of the reflexives are stable, irrespective of the

phonological environment in which they occur. A table showing the forms of the
reflexive pronouns in Yoruba is presented below:
Table

1st person singular ara mi

2nd person singular ara re

1st person plural

2nd person plural

araa wa

3 person singular araa r

3 person plural

araa won

rd

rd

araa yn

Note also that Yoruba belongs to the group of languages in which the

reflexive is identical in form with the reciprocal.

Apart from the normal coreferencing of its antecedent in a single clause

(cf. 1), the reflexive pronoun in Yoruba can also be adjoined with a subject (cf.
2a) and an object NP (cf. 2b). The internal structure of the appositive modifier
consists of: fun+ara+POSSpro.
(1)

(2a)

(2b)

ob

araa

king

see

body.POSS

his

ob

fnrar

The king saw himself.


ni

King by.body.his FOC he

se

do

it

The king himself did it.


ob

se

fnrar

King do

it

for.body.his

The king did it himself.

The interesting fact about the distribution of the reflexive pronoun in the

two instances in which it is adjoined with an NP subject and the object of a verb,
is the presence of the obligatory preposition element fn, which is identical with

the benefactive marker in the language. However, the adjoining of the intersifier
with the object NP may result in an ambiguous statement, namely, The king did
it by himself (i.e., unassisted). Or The king did it for himself (i.e., for his own
benefit). Native speakers can resolve the ambiguity by simply separating the

benefactive fn from the reflexive. This is shown in (3) below, in which case the
sentence can only be read as The king did it for himself.
(3)

ob

se

King do

it

fn

for

The king did for himself.

araa

body.POSS

his

What this tells us is that although the reflexive is homophonous with the

intensifier, native speakers still have a way of differentiating one from the other.
2

Other issues of interest which we hope to investigate in this paper include

the distribution of local and non-local antecedents, the substitution of other

pronouns, i.e., non-emphatic and logophoric pronouns with reflexives within a


construction, the distribution of reflexives based on the valency properties of

verbs, and reflexives in quantificational constructions, whether this involves a


different strategy in the language or not.

References
Adesola, Oluseye. 2008. African Anaphora Project at Rutgers:
http://www.africananaphora.rutgers.edu/index.php?option=com_conte
nt&task=view&id=112&Itemid=148.

Bamgbose, Ayo. 2008. Yoruba language: The Diaspora as a challenge to the


Homeland. Plenary paper presented at the Special World Congress of
African Linguistics.

Lawal, S. Nike. 2006. Yoruba pronominal anaphor un and the binding theory.
In John Mugane et al. (eds), Selected proceedings of the 35th Annual

Conference on African Linguistics. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings

project: 245-257.

Oladiipo, Ajiboye and Solveiga, Armoskaite. 2005. Yoruba 3rd person pro-form
are DPs. Proceedings of the 2005 conference of the Canadian Linguistics
Society.

Williamson, Kay & Blench, Roger. 2000. Niger-Congo. In Bernd Heine and Derek
Nurse (eds.), African Languages: An Introduction, 11-42. Cambridge

University Press.