Diminutives, huggables and teeny-weeny things

How does your native language or any other language you’re familiar with form diminutives? Does it shorten words? Does it add suffixes? Do you have to use additional words to express that something is small/cute/endearing? Can you only do it with nouns or other parts of speech as well (such as adjectives)? And last but not least, is it used by men and women more or less equally?

Czech is quite productive when it comes to diminutives. We use suffixes and sometimes form what’s called a double diminutive - a word that has already been adjusted is adjusted some more (dům - domek - domeček, meaning a house - a smaller house - an even smaller house). Among adults, I would say that women definitely use these more than men but around kids, people switch to them naturally, regardless of gender. This leads to non-native speakers who live with Czech spouses and little children building interesting vocabulary without realising that what they have acquired is in fact not suitable for any adult interaction. These people might then go to the dentist and say “bolí mě zoubky” (my cute little teeth hurt) or tell their doctor that they have a “bebíčko” (owie) :slightly_smiling_face:

A friend of mine, originally from Hong Kong, told me that when she was little, her dad would refer to her and her sister using classifiers for animals 隻 or small round objects 粒. I thought that was really sweet. I guess that would be like calling someone a “pumpkin” in English.

Anyway, please share any such tools the languages you speak have!

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In English, adding -y or -ey to animals is pretty common. Sometimes, not always, the suffix may also be written with -ie. Some examples of this include: doggie, ducky, goosie, horsie, lambie, piggy… This makes me wonder about the relationship between pup and puppy, but Wiktionary reports that puppy comes from the French poupée, puppet. However, not all animals words can be modified this way; a cat becomes a kitty, not a catty, and I can’t even think of the equivalent forms of cow and monkey and parrot, if they even exist.

If I’m not mistaken, erhua, the addition of 兒 in Mandarin to words, can sometimes mark nouns as diminutives, among its various uses. In Cantonese, 仔 (zai2) can be added as a suffix to the same effect. Someone with better Chinese should chime in, however, since there are definitely some nuances that I am missing.

This brings me to a question as well. I’m familiar with the use of -chen and -lein to create diminutive forms in German. However, my understanding is that Schätzel (“Bald hab’ ich ein Schätzel” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) is a diminutive form of Schatz. Is adding -l also a means of forming a diminutive? Or was it one, at one point?

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Haha, that’s true. Monkey and donkey already sound like diminutives, although something tells me that monkey is not a tiny monk.

I hope someone addresses the -l or -el issue in German. I mean, Hansel is a diminutive of Hans, right? In fact, both Hansel and Gretel probably are. What about Schnitzel, I wonder.

About diminuitives in German:

  1. The common standard forms are indeed -chen and -lein and in most cases they are interchangeable but there are cases where the meaning changes depending on the diminuitive you use:

Frau: woman
Fräulein: miss, young lady
Frauchen: female owner of an animal

Weib: (archaic) woman
Weiblein: diminuitive of Weib (often used in “Männlein und Weiblein” which basically means “men and women”)
Weibchen: female animal

Herr: mister, master
Herrlein: archaic diminuitive of Herr in the meaning of “young mister” (I never heard anyone use this word)
Herrchen: male owner of an animal

Mann: man
Männlein: diminuitive of Mann
Männchen: male animale; a trick that dogs or other quadrupeds do, consisting of resting on their hind legs with an upright body (and begging)

  1. Other diminuitive forms. As @profitendieu pointed out -l (or -el) can be used regionally as a diminuitive suffix as well,for instance instead of Mädchen, one could say Mädel, Madel or Madl. “Mädels” in plural is quite common in informal speech to refer to adult female friends: “Mädelsabend” is a “girls’ night out”. Without the plural, Mädel (and Madel/;adl) is only used regionally (mainly Austria and Bavaria). The diminuitive suffixes also differ from dialect to dialect. “Weck” is a neutral Southern German word for “bread roll”. Here’s how a bread roll is called in different Southern dialects:
    Weckla (Franconian)
    Weckle (Swabian)
    Weckli (Swiss)
    Weckerl (Bavarian)
    Well, the Swiss add -li to most of their words, so their conversations often sound quite cute. The Swabians also add -le whenever they can: Grüß Gottle, Adele, Tschüssle. I had a colleague whose last name was Wochele and she jokingly said that if she wouldn’t be Swabian her name would just be Woche.

  2. In German we have three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Whenever we use a diminuitive suffix nouns become neuter. Currently, we have a huge discussion going on about how to use a more gender neutral language. Traditionally, the masculine forms are used when talking about a group of people, e.g. if there are 99 female teachers and one male teacher in one group we would speak of male teachers (Lehrer) instead of female teachers (Lehrerinnen). Now, there are many people who try to be more inclusive by using the female form but making a short break in speech and mark the break in the word in order to include all genders (written "Lehrerinnen", spoken “Lehrer innen”. The Austrian linguist Thomas Kronschläger though developed a method to make all nouns gender neutral in an easy way by adding an -y. Instead of der Arzt/ die Ärztin (male/female doctor) it would be das Arzty, derdie Fahrer*in (male/female driver) would be das Fahry and so on. This is called “Entgendern nach Phettberg” (Phettberg is an artist who actually came up with the idea in the first place). This -y would make the language very gender neutral but it sounds like an diminuitive and thus a bit too cute for serious words.

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In Italian grammar there are four kinds of nomi alterati (altered nouns):

  • Accrescitivo: it’s used to refer to something big. For example: porta (a door) becomes portone (think of those huge doors in Medieval castles or churches);

  • Dispregiativo: to speak of something with a hateful tone. For instance: ragazzo (a boy) becomes ragazzaccio (a bad-mannered boy or a rascal);

  • Vezzeggiativo: used to speak of something in an endearing way. This is often used when talking to a child or just for a kawaii effect. For example: letto (a bed) becomes lettuccio (a sweet little bed or simply a bed);

  • Diminutivo: that’s a diminutive. Used to talk about small things. For example: mano (a hand) becomes manina (a child’s hand);

If you notice, they go in pairs: the accrescitivo is related to the diminutivo to talk about sizes, while the dispregiativo goes with the vezzeggjativo to talk about how you feel towards something.

Now I could go on for hours talking about this, because some words change their meaning according to the ending they get, but I’ll stick to the thread’s topic. In Italian the vezzeggiativo and the diminutivo are often interchangeable, because the concept of small size is often associated with sweet and cute things (I think it’s the same across all cultures; if not, just know this is how it is for Italians). For example casetta (that’s a vezzeggiativo) can mean either a small house or a cute little house. Just like in Czech, more than one ending can be used at the same time. -ino/a is the most common ending for diminutives, so casetta becomes casettina (again, a cute tiny house, like a doll’s house. This can be literal, like a real doll’s house, or ironical). To casetta and casettina you can also add casina (diminutive) and casuccia (vezzeggiativo) and you have four ways to refer to a small or cute house. These words are used differently depending either on the context or on the speaker’s preference.

Also the concept of size can be interpreted metaphorically. Diminutives, because they are used to refer to something small, may stand for an unimportant thing. For instance cosa may become cosetta or cosuccia (this can also be a vezzeggiativo) to refer to something that doesn’t have much value or something that doesn’t require special skills to be completed/ performed. The concept of “importance” may actually lead to a dispregiativo: for instance if you hate a poet, you can call them a poetucolo which is a diminutive and it literally means a little poet, but metaphorically it has a pejorative connotation. The expression “una persona piccola” (lit. “a small person”) can be used as a mild insult to refer to someone so despicable that they are worthless in other people’s eyes.
This goes for the accrescitivo as well. “Parola” means “word”, but a “parolone” is a “big word”. This is often used metaphorically when you use a word that doesn’t fit in the context because it’s too exaggerated.

Fun fact: as a child in elementary school our teachers wouldn’t say “males” and “females” (IT: maschi e femmine), they’d rather say “maschietti e femminucce” (little/ cute males and females). For example if we had a boys vs girls volleyball match or referring to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms. I always wondered why they used such words, they sounded too childish to me, but it’s probably done to desexualise children, because calling a little child a “boy” or a “male” may sound awkward or misunderstandable.

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