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Diminutive allomorphy

There are five different allomorphs of the diminutive suffix in Dutch: -tje, -je, -pje, -kje and -etje. The diminutive suffix attaches to nouns (e.g. huis - huisje house-DIM), less frequently to adjectives (e.g. oud - oudje granny, zoet - zoetje sweetener) and in a few cases also to prepositions (e.g. uit - uitje day trip, vooraf - voorafje starter, toe - toetje dessert) or numerals (e.g. tien - tientje ten euro bill) to create neuter nouns. The choice of the particular allomorph depends on the phonological form of the stem (cf. Booij 1995:69):

a. -je [jə]  : after stem-final obstruents
b. -etje [ətjə]  : after B-class vowel / schwa + sonorant sequences with the B-class vowel carrying primary (ˈ) or secondary (ˌ) stress
c. -pje [pjə]  : after stem-final /m/  not covered by (1b)
d. -kje [kjə]  : after stem-final /ŋ/  not covered by (1b)
e. -tje [tjə]  : elsewhere
a. -je
      grap grapje /xrɑpjə/ joke-DIM
      slot slotje /slɔtjə/ lock-DIM
      tand tandje /tɑnd-tjə/ [tɑntjə] tooth-DIM
      boek boekje /bukjə/ book-DIM
      boef boefje /bufjə/ scoundrel-DIM
      huis huisje /hœysjə/ house-DIM
      duif duifje /dœyfjə/ pigeon-DIM
b. -etje
      kam kammetje /kɑmətjə/ comb-DIM
      man mannetje /mɑnətjə/ man-DIM
      ring ringetje /rɪŋətjə/ ring-DIM
      bal balletje /bɑlətjə/ ball-DIM
      snor snorretje /snɔrətjə/ moustache-DIM
      hotél hotelletje /hotɛlətjə/ hotel-DIM
      kolóm kolommetje /kolomətjə/ column-DIM
      hórizòn horizonnetje /horizɔnətjə/ horizon-DIM
      wándelìng wandelingetje /ʋɑndəlɪŋətjə/ walk-DIM
c. -pje
      riem riempje /rimpjə/ belt-DIM
      duim duimpje /dœympjə/ thumb-DIM
      álbum albumpje /ɑlbʏmpjə/ album-DIM
      blóesem bloesempje /blusəmpjə/ blossom-DIM
      arm armpje /ɑrmpjə/ arm-DIM
      storm stormpje /stɔrmpjə/ storm-DIM
d. -kje
      kóning koninkje /konɪŋkjə/ king-DIM
      páling palinkje /palɪŋkjə/ eel-DIM
e. -tje
      traan traantje /trantjə/ tear-DIM
      proféssor professortje /profɛsɔrtjə/ professor-DIM
      cadeau cadeautje /kadotjə/ present-DIM
      ei eitje /ɛitjə/ egg-DIM
      lénte lentetje /lɛntətjə/ spring-DIM
      tánte tantetje /tɑntətjə/ aunt-DIM
      zooi zooitje /zojtjə/ mess-DIM

A similar form of allomorphy can be found for de-adjectival adverbs. These are derived from adjectives by adding the suffix -tjes which is usually analysed as the morpheme sequence -tje+s(Booij 1995:72). The allomorph -tjes shows an identical array of allomorphs as the diminutive; the same rules for allomorph selection apply. Examples are given in (3):

slap slapjes /slɑpjəs/ weak(ly)
wit witjes /ʋɪtjəs/ white(ly)
ziek ziekjes /zikjəs/ sick(ly)
kalm kalmpjes /kɑlmpjəs/ calm(ly), quiet(ly)
schoon schoontjes /sxontjes/ clean(ly), pure(ly)
smal smalletjes /smɑlətjəs/ narrow(ly)
saai saaitjes /sajtjəs/ boring(ly)

The Dutch diminutive allomorph selection is a well-studied and regularly addressed problem in the linguistic literature (see Van Zonneveld 1978; Trommelen 1984; Booij 1995; Van der Hulst 2008 for an overview and further references). As mentioned above, there are five allomorphs: -tje, -je, -pje, -kje and -etje.

Since the five allomorphs resemble each other quite closely, the question arises whether there is only one underlying form from which the others are derived or whether there are indeed five separate allomorphs stored in the lexicon. Accounts assuming only one underlying form usually propose -tje as the underlying one and claim that the other forms are the result of phonological processes, for example place assimilation (leading to -pje, -kje) or schwa epenthesis (leading to -etje), that apply if the stem has a particular form. In this context, the morphological structure (e.g. compound) of the stem, its stress pattern and the quality of the vowel and the coda consonants of the final syllable play a role.

Although such an account seems very attractive at first sight there are a few controversial issues connected with it. First, there are quite a number of exceptional cases - words that have an additional irregular diminutive form with -etje next to their regular diminutive form. Examples are given in table (1). Notice that the meaning of the irregular diminutive can differ from the regular one. Usually, speakers have a preference for one of the two forms; however, the other form is still judged as acceptable. Notice furthermore that stems ending in a coronal stop do not possess an irregular diminutive form.

Table 1: Exceptions I
Regular diminutive form Irregular diminutive form
brug bridge brugje [brʏxjə] bruggetje [brʏɣətjə]
bloem flower bloempje [blumpjə] flower-DIM bloemetje [blumətjə] bunch of flowers
wiel wheel wieltje [ʋiltjə] wieletje [ʋilətjə]
weg road wegje [ʋɛxjə] weggetje [ʋɛɣətjə]
heg hedge hegje [hɛxjə] heggetje [hɛɣətjə]
kip chicken kipje [kɪpjə] kippetje [kɪpətjə]
pop doll popje [pɔpjə] poppetje [pɔpətjə]
kat cat katje [kɑtje] *kattetje
mot moth motje [mɔtjə] *mottetje

Second, even though the five allomorphs look very much alike and the selection of the required allomorph is quite transparent, i.e. -pje after stem-final /m/, -kje after stem-final /ŋ/, etc., an approach that derives all allomorphs from an underlying -tje by place assimilation is not all that straightforward. In other cases of phonological place assimilation involving nasal + obstruent clusters, it is typically the nasal that takes on place features from the obstruent (cf. incompetent /ɪn-kɔmpətənt/ [ɪŋkɔmpətənt] incompetent, see also prefix allomorphy). However, for diminutive allomorphs we find the inverse pattern. Here, the obstruent of the suffix assimilates to the stem-final nasal.

Alternative approaches question that allomorph selection is mainly determined by the segmental properties of the stem. Instead, it is proposed that the structural organisation of the stem, i.e. foot structure / stress pattern, defines whether the long form -etje or the short form -tje (the choice of the correct short form is again the result of an assimilation process) is chosen (Van der Hulst 2008). According to these approaches the presence of a branching prosodic structure results in the selection of the short diminutive form. In contrast, the long diminutive form is chosen in order to compensate for a too small stem-final foot. Van der Hulst (2008) discusses some proposals following this line of argument (Ewen 1978; Kooij 1982; Lowenstamm and Van der Wilt 1982; Van Voorst 1983). Adapted to the particular framework in use, they have in common that they assume a branching structure either at the foot level or the syllable level (i.e. branching nucleus) causing the selection of the short diminutive allomorph. Van der Hulst's account tries to unify this approach by proposing that the branching condition only holds at the foot level. This can be accomplished by assuming that long vowel, i.e. A-class vowel or diphthong, and short vowel , i.e. B-class vowel, + sonorant sequences are both bipositional and, therefore, project a branching rhyme. Obstruents succeeding short vowels have to be syllabified in a following onset. However, this assumption is in opposition to the widely accepted idea that short vowels can only occur in closed syllables (see also the topics on A-class vowels and B-class vowels). The interested reader is referred to Van der Hulst (2008) for more details.


In informal speech and writing, the alternative forms -ie [i] and its allomorph -kie [ki] as well as the form -ke [kə] and its allomorphs -eke [əkə] and -ske [skə] (archaic in the north, in use in the south) can be found. See Nominal suffixation: diminutives for examples and an overview of the environments in which allomorphs of the informal variants are used.

  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Ewen, Colin1978The phonology of the diminutive in Dutch: a dependency accountLingua45141--173
  • Hulst, Harry van der2008The Dutch diminutiveLingua1181288-1306
  • Hulst, Harry van der2008The Dutch diminutiveLingua1181288-1306
  • Hulst, Harry van der2008The Dutch diminutiveLingua1181288-1306
  • Hulst, Harry van der2008The Dutch diminutiveLingua1181288-1306
  • Hulst, Harry van der2008The Dutch diminutiveLingua1181288-1306
  • Kooij, Jan1982Epenthetische schwa: processen, regels en domeinenSpektator11315--325
  • Lowenstamm, J. & Wilt, K. van der1982Dutch diminutive formation: a study in metrical ambiguity
  • Trommelen, Mieke1984The Syllable in DutchDordrechtForis
  • Voorst, Jan van1983A metrical treatment of schwa-epenthesis in DutchCahiers Linguistique d'Ottawa1075--102
  • Zonneveld, Ron van1978VerkleinwoordvormingProeven van Neerlandistiek. Aangeboden aan Prof. Dr. Albert Sassen, Groningen279--302
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