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My understanding of the concept of возвратный глагол is simple:

  • учить себя (to teach oneself) → учиться (to learn)

  • готовить себя (to prepare oneself) → готовиться (to get prepared)

  • ложить себя (to lay oneself) → ложиться (to lie down)

  • возбуждать себя (to excite oneself) → возбуждаться (to get excited)

The logic is that the object of the action is the subject itself.

But there are some возвратные глаголы that I cannot explain in terms of this logic, and I would like to ask you about a couple of them. Maybe your explanations will help me understand some general things as well as some other verbs whose logic I do not understand.

The first verb is "охотиться" ("to hunt"). The hunter hunts animals, not himself. The object of the action is not the hunter. I am confused as to why this verb ends with "ся".

The second verb is "рыться" ("to rummage"), which is similar to "копаться." If we remove ся from them, we get "рыть" and "копать," and these verbs mean "to dig (something)." But the interpretation of "рыться" and "копаться" as "рыть/копать себя" ("to dig oneself") does not make sense to me. People can say "рыться в вещах" or "копаться в вещах," which is equivalent to saying "рыть вещи (чтобы найти что-то)." I do not see how the object of this action could be the person who digs.

My question is this: What is the logic of the presence of "ся" in "охотиться" and "рыться/копаться"?

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  • A useful article on the subject: rusgram.ru/…
    – Alex_ander
    Jun 26 '19 at 16:00
  • It may look better if instead of interpreting Verb-ся as to Verb oneself interpret it as to be Verb[ing]: to be learning, to be preparing, to be laying down(that's sound weird), for возбуждаться in English would be passive voice, so it's different; but for охотиться it would be to be hunting, etc.
    – user28434
    Jun 28 '19 at 8:58
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Your understanding of what it called reflexive verbs is understandably simplified since it's actually the usual way this grammar construct is explained. Here's a quote from wikipedia:

In grammar, a reflexive verb is, loosely, a verb whose direct object is the same as its subject, for example, "I wash myself". More generally, a reflexive verb has the same semantic agent and patient (typically represented syntactically by the subject and the direct object).

The keyword here is actually loosely. There are lot of examples when reflexiveness of the word cannot be quite that simply be put into this 'object = subject' bucket.

For instance - собака кусается or шиповник колется, it's not like a dog can bite itself. Well, it can, but this verb is reflexive because among other things, reflexive verbs are used for what, again, in Wikipedia, is referred to as "активно-безобъектное".

Обниматься, целоваться are obviously also not about object being the subject.

Смеркается is another example where reflexive verb exists however there's no subject (or object for that matter) at all.

In fact even in relatively close languages like Russian and Polish some verbs indicating exactly the same action can be reflexive in one language and in the second one they are just not.

I remember myself puzzled exactly like you when I've first time heard German "ich bedankte mich bei ihr" (я поблагодарил её) - this "mich" sounded completely unnatural to me!

So, just like quite often I'm telling you - unfortunately it's not always about any logic. At least, in that sense that there's no set of rules that one can learn to memorize all cases. Memorizing the cases themselves is a better option ;)

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  • the logic is not only that semantics of formally reflexive verbs isn't necessarily limited to denotation of activity directed at oneself, but also that they're intrinsically relevant to those other semantic fields, which simply have to be researched and identified, and which is what linguists task themselves with Jun 19 '19 at 19:59
  • @БаянКупи-ка true! However in a narrower framework of learning Russian language I still can claim that there's more things to memorize here rather than understand.
    – shabunc
    Jun 19 '19 at 20:01
  • I would argue that обниматься, целоваться sometimes may be 'about object being the subject'. If those verbs are used with они: они целуют себя --> они целуются Jan 21 '20 at 15:01
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The suffix -ся can be understood as doing something by oneself or without a distinct target.

For instance, собака кусает - the dog bites a distinct target, собака кусается - the dog bites (whatever is near it).

So, рыть яму (to dig a hole, distinct target) but рыться (to dig around, without distinct target).

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It's not always useful to understand -ся in terms of себя. Russian inherited the pronoun and the verbal reflexive particle as two related-but-separate things already.

One manifestation of this is that -ся has some historical meanings that себя doesn't have in Russian. One is reciprocity. Драться "to fight", if we're being super-literal, means "to tear at each other", not "tear at oneself": modern Russian would use друг друга, not себя, to express this idea lexically. At the same time, in modern Russian, you can say ты хорошо дерёшься "you fight well" which doesn't make sense on this very literal level, because there'd need to be at least two combatants for there to be an "each other", which is what -ся used to express here. Not that it really does express that, or anything, anymore; -ся is, at this point, a purely grammatical verb modifier, which opens it up to all sorts of "bad" uses by analogy, which don't feel "bad" because it's so purely grammatical.

I'm not sure about the exact way verbs like охотиться or рыться came about, and when it happened, but the point I'm trying to make is, people were already thinking of -ся as something quite different from себя when those verbs were coined. I guess that by some analogy or other, -ся was reconceptualised as having, among its possible meanings, "to be intensely engaged in an activity".

I'm fairly sure I understand where a different shade of -ся came from, in things like собака кусается "the dog bites", meaning "the dog is a known biter". Here, the analogy was probably with mediopassive-like constructions such as дверь не открывается "the door won't open", generalised later to not only recipients but also agents of the verbs in question. Not directly relevant but, again, illustrates how -ся had long been very independent of себя, and instead perceived as a purely grammatical morpheme, and those eventually start to mean whatever they sound like they mean.

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  • Reflexive verbs are can be tough in Russian. The questioner is right: these verbs often make no sense. Language is not math, at least not yet.
    – user12210
    Jul 3 '19 at 13:02
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Notice that “охотиться” and “рыться” are continuous actions. You may think of it like this: rather than being a mere action, the intransitive verb confers a condition or state of being on the subject/object relative to the indirect object, e.g. "злиться на [что либо]", "радоваться [чему либо]" ("to be angry at [something]", "to be happy [about something]").

Moreover, I'd like to note two things here:

  1. "рыть" has both transitive and intransitive forms

you are incorrect to assume that "рыться в вещах" and "рыть вещи" are equivalent. The problem here is that you chose a poor example, because it has a rather metaphorical than direct meaning. A better example, in my opinion, would be "рыть яму" / "рыться в яме". The first has the meaning which you assumed: "to dig [something]" (in this case: a ditch). It's a transitive verb, object of which is the ditch and the subject is the digger.
The second may seem similar, but it necessarily implies that the subject itself is already inside the ditch (to dig around in a ditch). It's an intransitive verb. The direct object is the subject. The ditch is the indirect object.
So you might ask: which to use when? It's a matter of emphasis. If you want to emphasise the ditch, use the transitive form. If you want to emphasise the subject, use the intransitive. Confusingly, the example you picked (рыться в вещах) is an exception to this. It's an exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. You're not actually physically "digging" the things. It's used to emphasise the disorderliness of the things themselves, or the disorderly nature of the digger's conduct. In any case it's used to convey disorder.

  1. the verb "охотиться" only exists in the intransitive form.

This is unlike the English "to hunt". In English, we can say "I hunt the wolf.", or "I'm on the hunt for the wolf". In fact, the modern Russian language only seems to have an equivalent for the second form. Rather than saying that "охотиться (на)" means "to hunt", it would be more precise to say it means "to make hunt (on)". It comes from the noun "охота", which as you may know has other meanings besides "hunt", e.g. "мне (не) охота" (I (don't) feel like [doing something]). I hope you will agree that it makes little sense to use that expression transitively. Somebody may correct me on this, but it's my intuition that this is also why "охотиться" is intransitive.

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  • Thanks a lot for the answer. Are you a native speaker of Russian? I am asking because you said this: "2.the verb "охотиться" only exists in the intransitive form." I checked the validity of this statement in dictionaries and found that "охотить" is a valid transitive verb: dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/efremova/207455/… . What have you to say to that?
    – Mitsuko
    Jul 4 '19 at 10:56
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I think another possible way to think about is that in certain cases -ся makes the usually transitive verb intransitive and thereby alter the meaning, such as describe a general capability of action rather than a direct instance of action (кусает[bites something]>кусается[is capable of biting]). This would either make the verb not need a direct subject at all or make the subject indirect, requiring another word in between and making the meaning different.

In English many verbs can be both transitive or intransitive without modifying them. Dig the ground > Dig through clothes. This serves to change the meaning slightly. It's the same thing in Russian, but it requires modifying the verb with -ся. Копать землю > Копаться в одежде.

As for охотиться, I think that's a special case. Perhaps the transitive form was used in the past but got lost for whatever reason, so now only the intransitive remains.

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