If you wanted to say "the clothes are drying" and the "the meat cooking," would you say "die Wäsche trocknet sich" and "das Fleisch kocht [sic] sich" respectively?

I was reading a blog on linguistics, and one commenter offers these sentences as examples of reflexive (likely mediopassive?) constructions.

Another commenter disagrees, writing this:

"To use reflexive constructions in your examples would mean action. Ergative, if you will. It would mean that the laundry and the meat heat themselves up, cause themselves to heat up, instead of being heated by the sun or the stove."

I'm assuming the example sentences are correct (gramatically - note the "sic" next to "kocht"), having alternative forms in "die Wäsche kann mann trocknen" and "das Fleisch kann man kochen [sic]."

One reservation I have is that every other example of the mediopassive voice I have seen that I recall has had an adverb. Can this voice be used without an adverb?

On a related note, how would you say "that tastes good"? Would you say "das schmeckt sich gut," or is this incorrect?



  • 4
    I do not really get the question. Reflexive verbs do not, in the first place, have anything to do with passive constructions. Moreover, the word sich is out of place in both of your example sentences; nonetheless, both sentences are active voice. By the way: German has only active and passive voice, but not mediopassive voice. – Björn Friedrich Apr 15 at 19:47
  • @BjörnFriedrich I hear what you're saying but David Vogt provides examples of mediopassive sentences in this answer (german.stackexchange.com/questions/49837/…). – Aaron Apr 15 at 21:27
  • I don't know, why he does it. Mediopassive exists in some other languages, but the fact is that does not exist in German. – Björn Friedrich Apr 16 at 5:15
  • I never heard about mediopassive, maybe are you thinking or vorgangspassive/zustandspassiv? – peterh Apr 16 at 10:53
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    @BjörnFriedrich There's no morphology in German that distinctly signals a mediopassive voice; that doesn't mean there aren't semantically mediopassive structures in German. – pablodf76 Apr 17 at 11:24

Causative alternation, anticausatives/inchoatives

English and German both have verbs participating in causative alternation.

She was drying her clothes. Her clothes were drying.
Sie trocknete ihre Kleider. Ihre Kleider trockneten.

In the second variant (called anticausative or inchoative), the object of the first or causative variant has become a subject. That's parallel to what happens in the passive. However, the removal of the causative component changes the meaning: Whereas actives and passives are synonymous (disregarding certain complications), causatives and anticausatives are not. The above sentences describe different situations.

Moreover, causative alternation is a lexical phenomenon: A few verbs allow it, but most will not. This is different in the passive, which applies to the whole class of transitive verbs.

The lexical nature of the phenomenon is underlined by the fact that certain verbs will require a reflexive pronoun in the anticausative.

Sie öffnete die Tür. Die Tür öffnete sich.
Die Sonne erwärmt die Erde. Die Erde erwärmt sich.

Note that German kochen, trocknen do not belong in this group, so the following are out:

*Die Wäsche trocknet sich.
*Das Wasser kocht sich.

The middle or mediopassive construction1, 2

Finally, there seem to be cases where something that looks like an anticausative is only allowed when there is an adverbial present.

Das Buch verkauft sich gut/von selbst/wie heiße Semmeln/nicht.

One property that distinguishes this from genuine anticausatives is that the meaning is generic. Whereas

Die Kleider trockneten.

is referring to a specific event where there are wet clothes present,

Dieser Stoff trocknet besonders schnell.

is referring to a property of the subject that is connected to the type of events denoted by the verb, i.e. the meaning is generic.

For some discussion, see Language Log here and here.

Ordinary reflexives

Cases such as the following belong to neither of the above groups, but are simple reflexives, as the subject is a genuine agent.

Die Natur reguliert sich selbst.
Wenn man sich öffnet, ist man verletzbar.

  • 1
    There's a few examples like "Das findet sich" (I think about smahsed glass of church windows in der Freischütz) where it seems that you actually don't need adverb. – sgf Apr 16 at 9:19
  • Is there any reason not to see das findet sich as parallel to die Tür öffnet sich? – David Vogt Apr 16 at 10:20
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    Conceptually yes, I'd say. "Die Tür öffnet sich" at least in my head means that the door performs an action of opening, and it can be true without anyone opening the door. "Das Glas findet sich" is entirely passive; it means that someone finds the glass, or more properly, that it is possible to find it. – sgf Apr 16 at 10:25
  • The modal component seems to indicate that you are right and your example belongs in the mediopassive group. Honestly I find this all quite confusing. – David Vogt Apr 16 at 10:50
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    I think I rememeber seeing somewhere once a list of meanings of the mediopassive construction in German which had a habitual/potential/whatever thingy for stuff like "Das findet sich". But the use without and adverbial is certainly not that common. In any case, this is an excellent answer to a confusing topic. – sgf Apr 16 at 11:26

German has only active and passive, but not mediopassive voice.

die Wäsche trocknet
(the clothes are drying)
das Fleisch kocht
(the meat is cooking)

die Wäsche wird getrocknet
(the clothes are being dried)
das Fleisch wird gekocht
(the meat is being cooked)

These voices do not, however, have anything to do with reflexive pronouns, such as sich in:

Peter wäscht sich gerade.
(Peter is just washing himself).

The voices are especially not changed by the mere presence or absence of reflexive pronouns. Appending sich in the previous two phrases would leave the (active) voice unchanged:

die Wäsche trocknet sich
(the clothes are drying themselves)

das Fleisch kocht sich
(the meat is cooking itself)

Even though the phrases are not grammatically wrong per se, the statements are absurd, as you may infer from the translations.

  • One could argue the active voice version has a passive aspect, as the laundry isn't drying itself. The wind does. Same for the meat, which isn't cooking itself. The stove does. This can drive you nuts, but one should remember the grammar categories of tense, voice, mood are somewhat artificial. Real languages have only certain combinations of those, often with additional aspects not covered by a systematic. – Janka Apr 15 at 20:47

As a native speaker I can assure you, that you would never say

Die Wäsche trocknet sich.

I guess, the reason would be, that (a) there is just no need for the reflexive "sich" and - probably more importantly - (b) the laundry can not be considered as kind of an independent actor that does anything for itself.

In any case,

Das schmeckt sich gut.

is not - as it were - proper german. Because that would mean, that 'das' - whatever it is - tastes itself.

  • The actor argument foes not fully apply, cf. "Die Wäsche verfärbt sich (z.B. wenn man zu heiß wäscht)* – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 16 at 2:53

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