Reciprocals, Parts, and Wholes

Jim McCloskey
UC Santa Cruz

It is widely believed (and with good reason) that reciprocal pronouns such as English each other require plural antecedents:

(1)a. The children envy each other.
 b. Sally and Anna envy each other.
 c.*Joe envies each other.

It is a central goal of the analysis of reciprocals presented in Heim, Lasnik, and May (1991) to provide an understanding of why this requirement should hold. The analysis they develop takes the reciprocal to be not an atomic lexical element but rather to be composed of its two apparent parts—each and other. The element each is identified in their proposal with the distributive quantifier each as it appears in (2):

(2)a. The children have each bought a book.
 b.*The class has each bought a book.

The requirement of plurality in (1) then reduces to the similar requirement imposed by distributive each in (2), whose semantics also plays a crucial role in the semantics of reciprocals that Heim, Lasnik, and May offer.

The Irish reciprocal is the element a chéile. In origin, this is a complex expression consisting of a possessive pronoun a ('his' or 'its') followed by the noun céile, which means 'partner,' 'mate' or 'spouse'.

(3)Chonaicsiada chéile.
 sawtheyeach other
 'They saw each other.'

Although this decomposition is diachronically valid, it seems that in the modern language a chéile is unanalyzable. The particle a does not vary according to attributes of the antecedent (see (3) in which a retains its apparently singular form even in the presence of a plural antecedent); furthermore, the long [e:] characteristic of the noun céile is reduced and neutralized in the reciprocal. There is, in any case, no (visible) sign of a marker of distributivity within the reciprocal. If one were pushed to provide a literal translation of the expression, it would be something like 'the other'.

The restrictions which limit the distribution of a chéile in Irish closely mirror those which govern the distribution of English reciprocals. I will not document this in detail here, but simply assert that the antecedent must be more prominent than the reciprocal and must be in a local relation with it. The issues that arise in cashing out such general statements are closely parallel, down to minute levels of detail, in Irish and in English. Some of the core patterns are illustrated very briefly in (4) and (5)1.

(4)a. Labhairsiad le-na chéile.
    spoketheywith each other
    'They spoke to each other.'
 b.  Cháinsiadleabhair a chéile.
    criticizedtheybooks each other
    'They criticized each other's books.'
 c.  Shuighsiadin aice le-n a chéile.
    sattheybeside each other
    'They sat beside each other.'
(5)a.* Dúirtsiadgoraibh a chéile.breoite.
    saidtheyCOMP waseach otherill
    'They said that each other were ill.'
 b.* Dúirtsiadgobhfaca Eoghana chéile.
    saidtheyCOMP sawOweneach other
    'They said that Owen saw each other.'

So far the picture is a familiar one. Unexpectedly, however, the Irish reciprocal permits singular antecedents, at least in a range of circumstances. Examples on the model of (1c) are, of course, as ungrammatical in Irish as they are in English:

(1c')* ChonaicEoghana chéile.
   sawOweneach other
   'Owen saw each other.'

Consider, though, the examples in (6)–(12) (all attested examples):

(6)D'fhillSáilea clócaara chéile
 foldedSally hercloakon each other
 'Sally folded her cloak up (lit.: on each other).'
(7)Dhúnan páipéarara chéile
 closedhe thepaperon each other
 'He closed the paper up (lit.on each other).'
(8)D'fhillan nótaara chéile
 foldedhe thenoteon each other
 'He folded the note up (lit. on each other).'
(9)Chasan léineara chéile
 turnedshe theshirton each other
 'She folded the shirt.'
(10)D'fháisga béalara chéile
 squeezedshe hermouthon each other
 'She squeezed her lips together.'
(11)Bhíacár ag greadadhara chéile
 washer teeth ( oneach other
 'Her teeth were chattering.'
(12)choinnímmo bhéalara chéile
 ifI-keep mymouthon each other
 'If I keep my mouth shut.'

The interesting property of (6)–(12) is that even though they all involve singular antecedents, they are still reciprocal in their interpretation (the translations in terms of 'each other' are not entirely fanciful). The reciprocal relations involved though, are not reciprocal relations which hold among individuals conceived of as indivisible wholes. They are rather reciprocal relations which hold among parts of an individual whole. The folding of a cloak, of a piece of paper, or of a shirt (as in (6)–(9)) involves conceiving of the cloak, shirt, or sheet of paper as a set of parts, each of which is brought into contact with the other. Similarly in (10)–(12), the antecedent noun is singular (béal meaning 'mouth', cár meaning 'set of teeth' or 'jaw'), but the interpretation again crucially involves reciprocal relations among parts of a whole.

It becomes clearer that this is the right interpretation of the semantics when one notices examples like (13)–(15):2

(13)nagadhairag streachailt anghiorriabochtó chéile
 thehounds tearingthehare poorfromeach other
 'the hounds tearing the poor hare apart'
(14)scaró chéileanpáipéar rua
 separatedhe fromeach otherthe paperred
 'He tore the red paper apart.'
(15)goraibh scoiteóchéile
 COMPwas itdisconnectedfrom each other
 'that it had been broken apart'

In these cases, the English translation which most naturally renders the Irish reciprocal is the lexical item apart, an element which (on this use at least) requires reference to an individual conceived of as a sum of its parts, and which further requires that those parts be in motion outwards and away from one another. If something breaks, falls, comes, or blows apart, then each part of that thing must be in motion away from each other part.

The preposition ó meaning 'from' denotes motion away from the point of view. When it governs the reciprocal, then, it will denote reciprocal motion of parts outward from some central point of view—a very close approximation to the meaning of English apart. Naturally enough, different prepositions, when they govern the reciprocal, will yield interpretations which cannot be rendered by way of English apart, but which still entail reciprocal relations among parts of the whole. This possibility is illustrated for the preposition ar, corresponding very roughly to English 'on', in (16)–(18):

(16)anteach tititheanuasara chéile
 isthehouse fallendownon each other
 'The house has fallen in on itself.'
(17)bhíina chodladh castaara chéile
 washe asleepturnedon each other
 'He was asleep, curled up (on himself).'
(18)gachputógim bolgcastaara chéile
 everygut in-mybellytwisted oneach other
 'every gut in my belly twisted up'

Or with the preposition i(n) (meaning 'in') in (19):

(19)Tiocfaidhancnámh i-na chéile
 will-comethe boneineach other
 'The bone will knit.'

All of these examples have natural interpretations involving reciprocal relations among parts of a whole. In (16), each part of the house has fallen in towards each other part; in (17) the sleeper has each part of his body turned in towards each other part; in (18) each part of the gut is twisted towards each other part, and in (19) each part of the bone joins each other part.

What are we to make of all of this?

These observations suggest in the first place that there is no necessary or general requirement that reciprocal anaphors take only plural antecedents. Reciprocal anaphors may have singular antecedents in at least one circumstance—when that singular antecedent can be interpreted as a sum of parts and reciprocity can be asserted to hold of relations holding among those parts.

These observations may also suggest that Heim, Lasnik, and May are right in attributing the requirement that English reciprocals have plural antecedents to the presence of the distributive quantifier each within the (English) reciprocal phrase. In the absence of such an element (as in Irish it seems), the requirement does not always hold.


Heim, Irene, Howard Lasnik, and Robert May. 1991. 'Reciprocity and plurality.' Linguistic Inquiry 22: 63–101.


1 There is, though, no requirement that the antecedent precede the reciprocal. [Back]

2 In (13)–(15), the (prosodically weak) initial a of a chéile is elided following the long vowel of the preposition. [Back]