Tag Archives: sich

Behave Yourself!

This short phrase is one that I suspect nearly every reader who was raised in a English speaking household heard with some regularity. So common is its usage, that I was somewhat startled when I began to think about the questions this phrase could raise for a non-native speaker, especially one whose mother tongue happened to be German.

1. Should the initial “be-” be treated as a prefix? That is, is “behave” a modification of “have?”  Should it be treated as a compound formed from “be” and “have?” Or, is it a base form that cannot be broken down further?

2. How is it pronounced? Like the “ave” in “have” or the “ave” in “save?” And what about using “leave” as a pronunciation guide? Or the “ave” in “suave” or “Ave Maria?”

3. Knowing that one translation is benehmen and that there is also the noun das Benehmen which means “manners” does it have something to do with being polite? Or does it take more from another possible translation verhalten and its related noun das Verhalten, meaning “behavior” or “conduct,” and related adjective verhalten which means “restrained?” To add to the fun, note that one of the other meanings of verhalten is “to pause” or “to stop.”

4. In German, when you want to say someone “behaved well” or “badly” or “childishly,” you use the reflexive forms sich benehmen and sich verhalten. Is the “yourself” or “yourselves” obligatory? That is, is there a difference between “Behave!” and “Behave Yourself!” in terms of their meanings or the contexts in which they are used?

Perhaps the best advice when faced with “behave” is to simply “be yourself.”

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Sich [sic] as a dog

It is somewhat scary as an English speaker when you learn that a verb you want to use is a reflexive verb because we have so few examples in English. Even trickier are the verbs which have BOTH a reflexive and a non-reflexive form and in particular those verbs where the meaning change is not exactly transparent. Note that the convention for marking verbs as reflexive is to use the 3rd person singular reflexive pronoun sich. I think that there are two reasons for this. The first is that when learning verbs, one is typically given the 3rd person singular past tense form since this signals the sound/spelling form in irregular verbs. The second, specific to reflexive verbs, is that sich is unique in being the one pronoun that does not change between accusative and dative case (direct and indirect object, roughly) and also the only one that is not used in other situations that require an accusative or dative pronoun. That is, you use sich for both the accusative and dative cases with a reflexive verb and for both 3rd person singular and plural and, in addition, there is no distinction among the different grammatical genders. Finally something that is a bit easier – normally the 3rd person singular in the accusative case is ihn/sie/es – for er/sie/es – and in the dative it is ihm/ihr/ihm and the 3rd person plural is sie in the accusative and ihnen in the dative – even if remembering which verbs are reflexive is not.

I want to start by sharing some verbs that a novice German speaker wants or needs to use that are reflexive and thus require not just one but two pronouns (in some cases, it may help to think about the extra pronoun indicating that the subject of the sentence is doing something to her/himself).

sich beeilen – “to hurry up” (more on this verb in a future post because it is a great example of how one must be aware of syllable boundaries to ensure correct pronunciation)
sich duschen – “to take a shower”
sich erinnern – “to remember”

You basically need to be saying “I take a shower myself,” “I hurry myself up” and “I remember to myself” (in the sense of “I bring back into my mind”). These three differ in terms of their related forms. Sich beeilen (goodness, that looks odd with the sich capitalized, I wonder if there is a rule that disallows this?) is the simplest as it has no non-reflexive form. Sich duschen is a bit more complex as there is a duschen and it can mean either “to shower” or “to give somebody a shower.” Sich erinnern has a non-reflexive form ups the ante a bit:

erinnern – “to remind someone of somebody” or “to remind someone to do something” or “to be reminiscent of someone/thing”

Compare Du erinnerst mich an meinen Vater – “You remind me of my father” – and Ich erinnere mich an meinen Vater – “I remember my father” (note as well that in English “remind” and “of” go together like erinnern and an but that unlike English, where you can’t say “I remember *of…,” an also goes with sich erinnern).

While this is challenging to remember, the connection between the meanings is pretty direct The best example of a common word where relationship between the non-reflexive and reflexive forms is more convoluted is:

fragen – “to ask” – and sich fragen – “to wonder”

One could think of “wondering” as “asking yourself” but it would be very peculiar to say “I ask myself if it will rain today” even if you were a meteorologist!

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