German Reflexive Pronouns

Instructor: Samantha Green

Sam is from the UK but lives in the USA, she has taught college German and has both a bachelor's and master's degree in German Studies

When we talk about brushing teeth or washing faces we don't want there to be any confusion over whose teeth we are brushing or whose face we are washing. In German this is made clear by using reflexive pronouns.

What Are Reflexive Pronouns

Jessica has just arrived in Germany and she wants to go and get washed up before dinner. She says to her host mother ich wasche jetzt , to which her host mother looks slightly puzzled and responds was oder wen wäscht du? (what or who are you washing?).

This confusion is caused because in Germany waschen is considered a reflexive verb and therefore needs to be used with a reflexive pronoun when referring to a person. Jessica is very confused by this concept so her host mother explains it to her.

In German there are a number of verbs called reflexive verbs, where the subject and object are the same (I washed myself). These have to be used together with a reflexive pronouns that we use to refer back to the subject of the sentence, as in 'myself', 'yourself', 'herself'. We do this in English too, but it is much more frequent in German.

The German Reflexive Pronouns

Let's take a look at the German reflexive pronouns.

Subject
Pronoun
Reflexive
Pronoun
Pronunciation Translation
ich mich mihsch myself
du dich dihsch yourself
er/sie/es sich sihsch himself/herself/itself
wir uns uhns ourselves
ihr euch oyush yourselves
sie sich sihsch themselves
Sie sich sihsch yourself (formal)
  • Ich wasche mich. (I wash myself)
  • Du badest dich. (You bath yourself)
  • Er rasiert sich. (He shaves himself)
  • Wir entspannen uns. (We're relaxing ourselves)
  • Ihr Ihr freut euch (You're all pleased with yourselves)
  • Sie kümmern sich. (They take care of themselves)

Translation: He shaves himself.
er rasiert sich

Dative Reflexive Pronouns

So far these are the accusative reflexive pronouns. They are nearly always used in the accusative, but occasionally they do get used in the dative. When this happens all but two stay the same as those in the table. The two that differ are:

  • mich, which becomes mir (pronounced: mihr)
  • dich, which becomes dir (pronounced: dihr)

This occurs when there is both a direct object and indirect object in the sentence. When dealing with reflexive verbs, the direct object will usually be a body part or item of clothing. For example:

  • Ich ziehe mir eine Jacke an. (I put a coat on)

This sentence needs the dative reflexive because eine Jacke (a jacket) has taken the position of accusative direct object, leaving 'yourself' as the dative indirect object.

  • Du putzt dir die Zähne. (You brush your teeth).

This sentence uses the dative reflexive dir because die Zähne (the teeth) are the accusative direct object leaving 'yourself' to be the dative indirect object.

The big difference in these sentences between English and German is that in English we would use the possessive 'my teeth', in German the reflexive pronoun tells us this information and therefore we simply use the correct article die Zähne (the teeth).

Translation:I brush my teeth
Ich putze mir

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