Basque intransitive reciprocals: from seeing each other to getting married

Author: Kristina Bilbao, PhD candidate at the University of the Basque Country, Dept. of Linguistics and Basque Studies (UPV/EHU) and member of The Bilingual Mind Research Group (Gogo Elebiduna)

Reciprocal constructions express a symmetrical relation between participants involved in an event 1. For instance, consider the reciprocal construction Anne and Mary hugged each other, which denotes a mutual act of hugging between Anne and Mary. This construction implies the simultaneous occurrence of two symmetrical events: Anne hugging Mary and Mary hugging Anne.

Ilustration: Tilixia-Summer / Pixabay.

In Basque, there are two linguistic strategies to convey a reciprocal meaning. On the one hand, canonical reciprocals in Basque are transitive constructions employing the reciprocal anaphor elkar ‘each other’ (1) 2345:

(1) Guk elkar ikusi dugu kalean.

‘We have seen each other in the street.’

Transitive reciprocals such as (1) involve two arguments. One is the subject guk ‘we’, and the other is the reciprocal anaphor elkar ‘each other’, which is the direct object. Anaphors are linguistic elements referring back to a previously mentioned element in the sentence, known as the antecedent. For example, in sentence (1), the reciprocal anaphor refers back to the subject. Therefore, the anaphor indicates that the direct object must be interpreted as having the same referent as the subject, namely, we. Consequently, it is understood that we are, at the same time, the ones that see and the ones that are seen, reaching the reciprocal meaning.

On the other hand, reciprocal constructions in Basque can also be intransitive (2). Although intransitive reciprocals such as (2) are not accepted in Standard Basque 6, they are increasingly used both in oral and written Basque 7.

(2) Gu kalean ikusi gara.

‘We have seen each other in the street.’

Example (2) has the same meaning as example (1). Indeed, both are reciprocal constructions built on the predicate ikusi ‘see’. However, they differ in several aspects. Firstly, the intransitive reciprocal has only one argument, namely, the subject gu ‘we’. Secondly, there is no reciprocal anaphor such as elkar ‘each other’ in (2). Thirdly, as Basque is an ergative language 8, subjects of transitive constructions are marked with ergative case, while subjects of intransitive constructions, as well as direct objects, are marked with absolutive case. Hence, the subject of the transitive reciprocal in (1), namely guk ‘we’, bears ergative case, which is marked by –k in Basque. On the contrary, the subject of the intransitive reciprocal in (2), namely gu ‘we’, is marked with absolutive case, which is unmarked in Basque. Lastly, Basque is a language with auxiliary selection 9, and consequently, a different auxiliary verb is selected in transitive and intransitive constructions. Therefore, the transitive auxiliary verb edun ‘have’ is selected in transitive reciprocals, instantiated as dugu ‘we have’ in (1), while the intransitive auxiliary verb izan ‘be’ is selected in intransitive reciprocals, exemplified in (2) by the auxiliary gara ‘we are’.

Nevertheless, Basque intransitive reciprocals do not constitute a homogeneous class. A recent paper 10 claims that two types of intransitive reciprocals can be distinguished in Basque: syntactic reciprocals and lexical reciprocals. The distinction aligns with a cross-linguistic study by Siloni 11, who proposes a Lexicon-Syntax parameter for intransitive reciprocal constructions. According to this parameter, some intransitive reciprocals are formed in the Lexicon, while others are formed in the Syntax. In the context of Basque, the reciprocal construction in (2) is classified as a syntactic reciprocal, while a lexical reciprocal is exemplified in (3).

(3) Gu udaletxean ezkondu gara.

‘We got married in the town hall.’

In contrast to transitive reciprocals such as (1), where there are two arguments –one of which is the reciprocal anaphor marked with the absolutive case–, the construction presented in (3) resembles intransitive reciprocals like (2). Notably, it shows a single argument marked with absolutive case and lacks a reciprocal anaphor. Furthermore, it selects the intransitive auxiliary verb instead of the transitive one. However, as shown by Bilbao (2022), lexical reciprocals such as (3) exhibit distinct behavior when compared to syntactic reciprocals like (2).

Photo: Carla Searcy / Pexels

One significant contrast between lexical and syntactic reciprocals lies in the nature of the verbs used in each construction. The verb ezkondu ‘marry’ in (3) is an allelic predicate, while the verb ikusi ‘see’ in (2) is not. Allelic predicates constitute a category of verbs expressing a symmetric relation inherently within their lexical meaning (Haspelmath 2007). Consequently, reciprocal constructions formed with allelic predicates such as ezkondu ‘marry’ are denominated lexical reciprocals, given that their reciprocal meaning appears to originate from the Lexicon. Additionally, unlike syntactic reciprocals (2), lexical reciprocals (3) are accepted in Standard Basque, despite both being intransitive: since the symmetrical relation is inherent to the allelic predicate in lexical reciprocals, constructions such as (3) do not require a reciprocal anaphor to convey the reciprocal meaning.

In contrast, the verb ikusi ‘see’ is not an allelic predicate, as this verb does not inherently involve a symmetric relation in its lexical meaning. Therefore, the canonical way of expressing a reciprocal meaning with the verb ikusi ‘see’ in Basque is to employ the reciprocal anaphor, that is, to use transitive reciprocals like (1). However, syntactic reciprocals are recently used more and more often by Basque speakers, especially in non-formal registers. In this type of reciprocal constructions, a syntactic operation of reciprocalization occurs, allowing a non-allelic predicate to convey a symmetric relation without employing a reciprocal anaphor. As a result, reciprocal constructions like (2) are called syntactic reciprocals, as they are argued to be formed in Syntax.

Following Siloni’s (2012) criteria, Bilbao (2022) provides evidence for the distinction between lexical and syntactic reciprocals in Basque. One of the differences between lexical and syntactic reciprocals is related to productivity: the process of forming syntactic reciprocals is productive, whereas allelic predicates constitute a limited set of predicates cross-linguistically (Siloni 2012). Indeed, there seem to be few allelic predicates in Basque, and they are semantically restricted to relations among humans. For example, verbs like ezkondu ‘marry’ (3), batzartu ‘meet’or elkartu ‘meet’are claimed to be allelic predicates in Basque (Bilbao 2022). In contrast, the verbs capable of undergoing the syntactic operation of reciprocalization seem to be increasing in recent years (Bilbao et al. 2022).

Additionally, there are differences regarding the morphosyntactic contexts in which lexical and syntactic reciprocals can appear. An example of this is the discontinuous reciprocal construction. Discontinuous reciprocal constructions express a symmetric relation between a participant expressed in the subject and a participant expressed in a comitative phrase 12. In Basque, comitative phrases include a comitative ending, which is –rekin ‘with’. For instance, example (4) conveys a symmetric relation between the participant Miren, which is the subject, and the participant Ane, expressed in the comitative phrase Anerekin.

(4) Miren Anerekin ezkondu da.

‘Miren got married with Ane.’

According to Siloni (2012), only verbs that form lexical reciprocals can appear in discontinuous reciprocals. Basque seems to follow this pattern: the allelic predicate ezkondu ‘marry’can form a discontinuous reciprocal (4), whereas the non-allelic predicate ikusi ‘see’ cannot (5):

(5) *Miren Anerekin ikusten da.

Intended: ‘Miren sees Ane.’ (lit. ‘Miren sees with Ane.’)

To sum up, Bilbao (2022) represents a preliminary study on intransitive reciprocals in Basque. This study replicates Siloni’s (2012) findings in other languages: some intransitive reciprocals in Basque are lexical reciprocals, while the others are syntactic reciprocals. Crucially, the former are formed with allelic predicates that express a symmetric relation lexically, unlike the latter, which are formed by a syntactic operation.


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