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Grammar: Diminutives

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Diminutives are very common in Dutch, but not used as much in English. At least, not in the same way.


What are diminutives?

A diminutive is a modified word which expresses the smallness of said word, or to make something more cute or endearing. In English, this is done by either making the word (most often a name) shorter: ‘Anthony’ becomes ‘Tony’, or by adding for example ‘tiny’ or ‘little’: Tiny Tony or Little Mary.

In Dutch, however, creating the diminutive is different. Rather than adding another word (tiny, little), a suffix is added to the word itself. We will explain how that looks like below. The usage of the diminutive in Dutch will also be covered.


Recognising and creating the diminutive

It’s not too hard to recognise the diminutives in Dutch: they always end in -je. Also important to know, is that they are all het-words and, depending on the phonology of the word, other letters may have to be added before -je. There are quite a few possible combinations, but apart from -je there are four main ones:

  1. -tje, which is added to:
    • nouns ending in a vowel or w
    • nouns that end in a long vowel followed by l, n or r *nouns ending in unstressed -el, -en, or -er when the "e" is mute
  2. -etje, which is added to nouns ending in a short vowel followed by a single l, n, ng, m or r
  3. -kje, which is added to nouns ending in an unstressed -ing
  4. -pje, which is added to:
    • nouns ending in a long vowel followed by -m
    • unstressed -em when the "e" is mute

Other spelling rules

The rules explained above are the main rules. However, some more spelling rules need to be taken into account:

  • Nouns ending in a single a, i, o, or u are written with two vowels in the diminutive, to keep their vowels long: auto - autootje
  • Nouns ending in a single y (usually English words) get an apostrophe before -tje, to keep the vowel long: baby - baby’tje
  • Nouns that end on a syllable with a short vowel often get an extra consonant: ster - sterretjes

More complicated rules and forms exist, but the above details the basics of the Dutch diminutives.


Usage

Diminutives can be used to do the following in Dutch:

1. Express how small something is
  • hond (“dog”) + je = hondje - “small dog”
  • broer ("brother") + -tje = broertje - “younger brother”
  • ding (“thing”) + etje = dingetje - “little/small thing”
  • probleem (“problem”) + pje = probleempje - “little/small problem”
2. Express mistrust or contempt:
  • De kaas heeft een vreemd smaakje. - "The cheese has an odd taste."
  • Wat spreken die Nederlanders toch een raar taaltje. - "What a strange language those Dutch speak."
3. Express cuteness:
  • Wat een leuk vliegtuigje! - "What a cute (little) airplane!"
  • Ik zag zo’n lief baby’tje! - “I saw such a cute (little) baby!”
4. Express something positive:
  • Lekker wijntje! - "Delicious wine!"
  • Leuk jurkje! - “Nice dress!”

Some diminutives are no longer necessarily regarded as diminutive forms, but are used alongside the basis words on their own:

  • grap/grapje - "joke"
  • kop/kopje - "cup"
  • vraag/vraagje - "question”

Some diminutives have taken over the basis word, and are now used as the basis word instead. (Note that the original basis word can still be used too!)

  • het meisje - “the girl” from de meid - “the girl”
  • het vriendje/vriendinnetje - “the boy/girlfriend” from de vriend/vriendin - “the friend” or “the boy/girlfriend”

Many diminutives obtain a different meaning from the basis words:

  • de telefoon - "telephone"; het telefoontje - "phone call"
  • het ijs - "ice (i.e. frozen water)”; het ijsje "ice cream"
  • het bier - “the beer”; het biertje - “the glass of beer”
  • het brood - “the bread”; het broodje - “the piece of bread” or “the sandwich”
  • de brief - “the letter”; het briefje - “the note”

As you may have noticed, you have come across some diminutives throughout the course, and maybe without realising it! The most common diminutive in Dutch is meisje. You’ll come across many more, maybe without realising it! It might be a bit difficult to translate these words back into English, especially when the basis word can be used as well. Don’t worry! You’ll get the hang of it! Soon, you will be a diminutive-master!


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