Or, to translate the Russian way of saying this in a certain more literal sense: “I’m complaining in/to myself on you (Я жалуюсь на тебя).”

Жаловаться is “to complain,” and it is what is referred to as a reflexive verb. We will get into further categories below but a basic definition of a reflexive verb is an (always) intransitive verb (denoted by the -ся/-сь postfix) certain categories of which “reflect” their action (often on the subject(s)).

We are going to list three categories of reflexive verbs with some examples (though there are five or even seven categories of these verbs). I give the following verbs in their imperfective/perfective pairs (and, if you don’t yet know what that means, remember them as a pair in any case; sometime later we’ll talk about this concept).

1. Verbs that can’t be used without -ся/-сь:

– бояться/побояться (to be afraid (of)) Я боюсь собаки.

– надеяться/понадеяться (to hope) Он надеется на меня.

– смеяться/посмеяться (to laugh) Мы смеёмся над нашими ошибками.

– улыбаться/улыбнуться (to smile) Ты улыбаешься мне?

2. Verbs that literally reflect back on the performer (In this category, it can directly be seen how the the -ся/-сь has come from the pronoun себя (oneself).)

– мыться/помыться (to wash (oneself)) Бомж мылся каждое лето.

– одеваться/одеться (to dress (oneself)) Он сейчас одевается.

– защищаться/защититься (to defend (oneself)) Она храбро защищается от комаров.

– прятаться/спрятаться (to hide (oneself)) Карапуз прячется от незнакомых людей.

– возвращаться/вернуться (to return) Я возвращаюсь через два дня.

3. Verbs with reciprocal meaning between two or more subjects

– встречаться/повстречаться (to meet, encounter) Мы редко встречаемся.

– советоваться/посоветоваться (to consult) Они всегда советуются друг с другом перед важным решением.

– здороваться/поздороваться (to greet) Вы не забудьте здороваться с преподавателем.

(Your homework assignment is to translate the above phrases, and don’t use Google translate! Use an old fashion dictionary. I will allow an electronic dictionary, such as multitran.ru)

There are also some verbs that change meaning when they take on the -ся/-сь postfix (though often you can see the similarity in meaning).

What is also interesting about the -ся/-сь postfix is that it “plays” with the concept of transitivity (transitive verbs take direct objects, while intransitive verbs do not) and broadens the possibilities for variations in verb meaning.

While the above distinctions and groups have great linguistic value, I submit a more philosophical, if you will, interpretation of some reflexive verbs.

If we recall the way I translated “Я жалуюсь на тебя” above and think about the essence of complaining or getting angry, we find that it is an internal action, and, therefore, it makes sense that the verb shows this by being reflexive. Personally speaking, there’s probably not a day that goes by in which I don’t complain about something or get angry, and, when I actually think about it, I realize that all the complaints (жалобы) and all the anger (гнев) really have to do with my own attitude.

To get angry (even to get angry “at” someone), by the way, is also a reflexive verb: гневаться – Он гневается на соседа.
We could also say that, although we complain or get angry “in ourselves,” the result is, nonetheless, “on” (на) someone/something else.

Жаловаться is interesting in another way if we look at the root of the word, which is жал-. This root means pity, regret; disappointing, sorrowful. However, there’s a better side to this root, which is when that pity is shown to other people, and we get the verb жалеть. And when we share that pity with someone or co-suffer with them, we get the noun сожаление and can выразить (express) сожаление to someone (though this phrase is usually translated as “to express regret”).

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