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In modern Spanish, the word "se" has several uses. According to Butt & Benjamin's A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, there are at least eight different uses. Among them we can count the formation of passive constructions and impersonal constructions, reflexive actions, reciprocal actions, and the changing of the meaning of a verb altogether (what are commonly called "pronominal verbs".) "Se" can also be used as an indirect object pronoun.

Indeed, if we also consider "sé", which can be both the present tense of "saber" and the command form of "ser", we are left with at least ten usages.

My question is this: How did it come to pass that so many distinct uses of the word "se" arose?

  • I find this question particularly interesting because so many sentences with "se" are left ambiguous because of its versatility. – SeingClearly Oct 2 '17 at 5:01
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    Would be interesting to make a list of the uses in the question itself to show people just how many there really are, most books/articles do not cover them all. I know people have different names for the same uses so we'll have to deduplicate. One additional use could be the accidental se. Additionally some examples of ambiguous se use could also be interesting. – Haven Hash Oct 2 '17 at 6:37
  • Are you asking about the historical development of se or just how its different functions relate to each other now? ( from saber and ser are different, unrelated words, so they should not be included.) – pablodf76 Oct 2 '17 at 10:57
  • I am asking about the historical development of "se" for each usage, though I'm sure some of these histories are totally unrelated. – SeingClearly Oct 2 '17 at 13:55
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    i'd like to argue against grouping sé together with se, since that's the whole purpose of writing it different, in fact in spoken language there's a notable difference in entonation when using one or another – Brian H. Dec 28 '17 at 9:50
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Se as the third person reflexive pronoun comes from the Latin reflexive pronoun, which was se in the accusative case and sibi in the dative case (later merged). So se as a reflexive mark is the oldest usage.

Reciprocal use of se is a natural extension of its reflexive meaning. Note that in Spanish there isn't a simple way to mark reciprocal action; the reflexive forms are used, and when context is not enough, speakers resort to fixed phrases like mutuamente or uno al otro, unos a otros.

As for the passive: we have dealt with the history of the Spanish passive voice before. Latin had a synthetic passive voice, i.e. passive voice was indicated by a form of conjugation, same as mood, tense, person and number are. There were deponent verbs, which conjugated always in the passive voice, morphology-wise, but were actually active in meaning. When this morphological passive was lost, Latin began using a periphrastic passive construction with the verb esse plus the perfect participle instead, but this was ambiguous at first because it had both a present and a past-perfect meaning: *amātus sum = "I have been loved" or "I am loved". It appears that for impersonal passive constructions se was used to avoid this: instead of dicitur "it is said" Late Latin used se dicit (mod. Sp. se dice). So there's another usage of se.

For deponent verbs which carried medioactive or mediopassive meanings, the replacement was also se, extending its meaning from truly reflexive action to a wide range of meanings having to do with specific types of involvement of the agent or the patient. These verbs and many others formed on those models ended up as pronominal verbs in Spanish, many of which still carry shades of reflexive meaning (of action or events focused on the patient). That's another use of se.

I think I have covered all or most of the uses of se as a reflexive pronoun, passive, impersonal and pronominal verb marker. There's also from saber and from ser, but those are simply homophones and pose no complications (except from their irregular forms).

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Less than 10 usages ?

I think you haven't noticed that "se" is also a conjugation of the verb "is".

"Is" can be used both as "se" and "es", mostly "se" when you are conjugating the verb "be" itself, like :

"It is getting late" translates to: "Se esta haciendo tarde" or "esta haciéndose tarde" (see how the "se" is transfered to the end of the verb >>haciendo>>" ").

Now , another use of "se" is the indicative of self pertenence i.e. "el se compró un auto" doesn't only translates to "he bought a car", the correct translation is: "he bought a car for himself".

Another weird example is: "el se hizo malo". This doesn't means "he did bad", this actually means "he made himself bad" that actually means "he became evil"

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    In what universe is se a conjugation of ser? I can confirm that is but that's second person imperative and has nothing to do with se. – iBug Nov 23 '17 at 12:46
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    hacerse as a pronominal verb, means to become. So Esta haciendose tardo means It's becoming late. You're giving a wrong answer. – iBug Nov 23 '17 at 12:48
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    Same for Él se hizo malo where se hizo means he became, which has nothing to do with made himself. – iBug Nov 23 '17 at 12:50
  • i'm sorry IBug, but clearly you are not a native Spanish speaker, and you are giving the answer to this question, the pronominal verbs are the reason why the word "se" is so important in the Spanish language, because it can be broken down in two parts: "haciendose" is the same as "se hace", "rompiendose" is the same as "se rompe" , the prenominal verbs can be broken with the word "se" and the verb in present tense, or you can get it by using the gerundio and adding "se" at the end – Mike Nov 24 '17 at 3:52
  • also, it seems you don't understand the language itself. the verb 'ser" is present in many locations, just as the verb "be" in English. even when you try to translate you'll end up using "se" as a direct translation of "is" , the prenominal means that is implying the presence of a subject, how does it happens ? whit the particle "se" , or as I said before, extracting the "se" from the word and using the present tense, both means the same. – Mike Nov 24 '17 at 3:55

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