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Nominal suffixation: diminutives

Diminutive formation is a very productive and frequent type of nominal suffixation in Dutch. Diminutives are always of neuter gender, thus taking the singular definite article het, and invariable have a plural in -s. Diminutives are used to refer to small specimens of the base word referent but also serve many other functions, e.g. as terms of endearment, for individuation, etc. Occasionally, the input category is other than noun.

In current standard Dutch, diminutive forms are constructed with one of the suffixes -etje, -tje, -je-pje or-kje, whose distribution is predictable to a large extent.

Table 1
Base Diminutive
dingthing dingetje
banaanbanana banaantje
streepline streepje
lichaambody lichaampje
koningking koninkje

[+] Allomorphy

In current standard Dutch, diminutive forms are constructed with the suffixes -tje (zeetje < zeesea), -je (boekje < boekbook), -pje (boompje < boomtree), -kje (koninkje < koningking) and -etje (dingetje < dingthing).

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Scholars disagree on which of the allomorphs is the base form, see Van de Weijer (2002) and Van der Hulst (2008) for overviews of the various approaches to the distribution of the allomorphs, and alternative analyses.

Informal Northern Dutch has also diminutives in -ie plus allomorphs with their own distribution (e.g. boekie < boekbook, boompie < boomtree, beessie < beesanimal ), Southern Dutch has also diminutives in -ke plus allomorphs with their own distribution (Vandekerckhove 2005) (e.g. beddeke < bedbed, boekske < boekbook, boomke < boomtree, dingske < dingthing) as well as relicts of an older suffix -el (e.g. wegel/'we.γəl/ < weg/wεχ/road).

A few words have diminutives in -ie only, e.g. mammiemommy, pappiedaddy, makkieeasy job (cf. gemakkelijkeasy), sjekkiefag (< shaghand rolling tobacco), etc. (van Oostendorp 2000). See MAND for dialectal data and De Schutter et al. (2005) for discussion.

The distribution of the allomorphs is in general predictable from the phonological make-up of the base ( De Haas and Trommelen 1993:279, Van der Hulst 2008, cf. also Daelemans 1997), but note that the regularities that govern the distribution of the allomorphs are specific to the diminutive formation process:
Table 2
allomorph input conditions examples
-etje /əçə/ after words ending in nasal or /l/ immediately preceded by vowel dingetjesmall thing, romannetjesmall novel, parasolletjesmall sunshade
after monosyllabic words ending in /r/ preceded by short vowel karretjetrolley, sterretjestarlet, asterisk
pje /pjə/ after words ending in long vowel, diftong or schwa plus /m/ lichaampjesmall body, pruimpjesmall plum, bezempjelittle broom
after words ending in short vowel, plus /r/ or /l// plus /m/ zalmpjesmall salmon, wormpjesmall worm
kje /kjə/ after words with more than syllable ending in ing with penultimate stress koninkjelittle king, vergissinkjesmall mistake
je /jə/ after words ending in obstruent streepjesmall line, wereldjesmall world
-tje /çə/ in all other cases banaantjesmall banana, gitaartjesmall guitar, autootjesmall car, etudetjesmall étudekooitjesmall cagezenuwtjesmall nerve

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Adding a diminutive suffix to a stem ending in more than one consonant may yield a consonant cluster that is hard to pronounce: a form like hemdje < hemdshirt is therefore often realized as /hεm.pjə/ (but the corresponding spelling hempje is frowned upon by normative sources (onzetaal). Trisyllabic pronounciation (/hε.mə.çə/) is another (informal) possibility. For many speakers from the north, the diminutives of kasgreenhouse and kastcupboard are homophones as a result of /t/-deletion: both are realized as /kɑsjə/ or /kɑʃə/. Speakers from the south often do make a difference, kastje being realized more like /kɑs-çə/ or /kɑst-jə/.

Some of the input conditions in the table are not mutually exclusive, which explains why certain types of words have more than one diminutive form:

  • bisyllabic words with stress on the first syllable and a second syllable with a short vowel plus a nasal or /l/ regularly get -etje, but can also get -tje, -pje or -kje: pythonnetje pythontjesmall python, pelgrimmetje, pelgrimpjesmall pilgrim, sarongetje, sarongkjesmall sarong, etc.
  • monosyllabic words ending in /p/, /b/ or /g/ get -je, but in a few cases, -etje is possible as well (Van der Hulst 2008: footnote 5): kipje, kippetjesmall chicken,popje, poppetjesmall doll, rugje, ruggetjesmall back etc.
  • words ending in long vowel plus sonorant consonant regularly get -pje or -tje, but -etje occurs as well: bloempje, bloemetjesmall flower, wieltje, wieletjesmall wheel etc.

Some nouns that have vowel lengthening in the plural form show the same effect in diminutive forms, others don't:

  • vowel lengthening: gat - gaatjehole (cf. plural gatenholes), schip-scheepjeship (cf. plural schepenships), etc.
  • no vowel lengthening: hof - hofjecourt (cf. plural hovencourts), gebrek - gebrekjelack (cf. plural gebrekendefects), etc.
  • two forms: dag - dagje, daagjeday (cf. plural dagendays), dak - dakje, daakjeroof (cf. plural dakenroofs), spel - spelletje, speeltjeplay, game (spel has two plural forms, spellen and spelen).

If there are two forms, the meanings or usage possibilities may be different (perhaps due to the one form one meaning principle). E.g., only bloemetjeflower-DIM has the extra meaning 'bunch of flowers, bouquet', and whereas spelletje can best be translated as 'game', speeltje is more a 'toy'.

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It is also possible that speeltje is derived from the verbal stem speelplay.

Nouns with a plural form in -eren/-ərə(n)/ sometimes show this same stem allomorphy in the diminutive form as well, often in the plural only: rad - radje - radertjeswheel, kind - kindje - kindertjeschild, blad - blaadje - blaadjes, bladertjesleaf.

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There are a few irregular diminutive forms, e.g. gympjesneaker (informal gympie) (< gymnastiekschoengymnastics shoe) and Jantje < Janproper name - the expected Jannetje exists as well, but is usually a girl's name.

There is a number of related suffixes -jes, -tjes etc. that create adverbs, e.g. eventjeseven-tjesfor a short while (informally also effies) and stilletjesstil-etjessilently, secretly; the distribution of the variants is governed by the same system as that of the diminutive. There is also a series of southern Dutch variants in -kes: effekesfor a short while (or efkes), zwakskeszwak-skesweakly.

[+] Input conditions, productivity

Diminutive formation on the basis of nouns is productive and frequent in Dutch. The input typically consists of nouns, both simplex (huisjesmall house) and complex (tuinhuisjesmall garden house, gazebo), not only from native bases but also from non-native ones (e.g. embryootje < embryoembryo).

Occasionally, words of other categories and even phrases can serve as bases (Booij 2002: 89):

Table 3
Category Base Diminutive
N vrouwwoman vrouwtjesmall woman, sweetheart
A liefsweet liefjesweetheart
V duttento nap dutjenap
Num tienten tientjeten euro note
P/Adv uitout uitjeouting
NP twaalf uurtwelve o'clock twaalfuurtjewrapped lunch
PP onder onsbelow/between us onderonsjeprivate chat
Det dit en datthis and that ditjes en datjesodds and ends
Pron ietssomething ietsjesa little bit
It is only with nominal bases that diminutive formation is very productive (in the quantitative sense), but its productivity manifests itself in the occasional extension of diminutive affixation to words of other categories. As Van Marle (1981) observed, the bases from other lexical categories are typically simplex words: we hardly find any diminutives based on complex verbs.
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An exception to the last generalization is dubbeldikjedouble thick ice cream fromdubbeldikdouble thick but this example is taken from the creative language used in advertisements, where we often find exceptional formations.

The basis of a number of diminutives does not occur independently (anymore); these formations are called diminutiva tantum. Cases in point are meisjegirl, sprookjefairy tale (< obsolete sprokestory < sprekento speak, see Etymologiebank), roodborstjered-breast-DIMrobin, akkefietjespot of bother, trifle, beetjebit (beet does occur with the meaning 'bite' but the relation with beetje is not evident for most native speakers), etc.

Countable nouns of all forms can get a diminutive suffix, both native and nonnative, both simplex and complex, except for certain complex nouns ending in schwa. To be more specific, the following types of formations are claimed to be excluded from diminutive formation (De Haas and Trommelen 1993: 282):

  • nouns derived by means of the person-forming suffix –e (*blindetjeblind-e-DIM < blindblind, *dovetje < doofdeaf)
  • nouns derived by means of the suffix –e that forms female person names: no *kampioenetje from kampioenechampion-efemale champion, no *Grieksetje from GriekseGriek-s-eGreek woman
  • nouns derived by means of the suffix(es) –se: next to domineeseclergyman’s wife’ no *domineesetje, and no *smidsetje derived from smidseblacksmith’s shop, forge
  • nouns derived by means of the discontinous affix (circumfix) ge ... te: no *gebergtetje from gebergtege-berg-temountains or *geraamtetje from ge.raam.teskeleton.
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One may want to derive the ban on diminutive formation of complex nouns ending in schwa from the generalization that Dutch disprefers sequences of two unstressed syllables (Booij 1998). This cannot be the whole story, however, as diminutive forms of simplex words ending in schwa can be found easily (e.g. freuletje < freulelady, tubetje < tubetube, kantinetje < kantinecanteen. Moreover, complex words formed with other suffixes in schwa can get a diminutive as well (e.g. documentairetje < documentairedocumentary, onvoldoendetje < onvoldoendeinsufficient mark). On top of that, the constraint appears not to be absolute in all cases: forms like gebergtetjesmall set of mountains/set of small mountains and kampioenetjesmall or adorable female champion can be found via internet search.

[+] Semantics and use

Diminutive forms always denote countable objects. They can be used to refer to small things (e.g. dorpjesmall village) but, among other things, also for individuation (biertjeserving of beer), as term of endearment (kindjelittle child, dear, lekker weertjenice weather-DIMnice weather), to express contempt (boekjeunimportant book) and to construct female names (Geertje < Geert). According to Donaldson (2008) (see also languagelog), "the nuances of meaning expressed by the diminutive [...] make it [...] peculiarly unique in Dutch but also so difficult for non-native speakers to master. [...] On the whole the connotation of a diminutive form is either neutral or positive, but sometimes it fulfils a derogatory function." At least the following meanings and uses of the diminutive can be distinguished:

  • The diminutive's basic function is to denote small things. But even in that case, the diminutized noun is commonly preceded by the adjective kleinsmall: een klein huisjea small house-DIMa small house.
  • The diminutive is also used as a form of endearment: een aardig sommetjea nice sum-DIMan impressive amount. Diminutive suffixes are traditionally used to construct girl’s names: Geertje Johanneke Annie). Diminutives can also be used to productively form terms of endearment from proper names: Geertjedear Geert, Olgaatjesweet Olga’, Tonniebeloved Ton’. This is also possible with surnames: de Hallemannetjes komen vanavondThe Halleman-DIM-s come tonightThe Halleman family are visiting us tonight.
  • Sometimes the diminutive form of a noun translates as a completely separate lexical item in English: broodjebread roll < brood bread, loaf of bread, kaartjeticket < kaartmap.
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    Hartjeheart-DIM has developed a use as a preposition: hartje stadin the very centre of the town.

  • The diminutive is used to itemize certain mass nouns (particularly varieties of food and drink) which take on the meaning of one item of that substance when they bear the diminutive ending: een biertjea glass of beer (< bierbeer), een pilsjea glass of beer (< pilspilsener, lager beer), een houtjea bit of wood (< houtwood), pleziertjefavor (< plezierfun).
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    There are regional differences: een koffietjea coffee-DIMa cup of coffee is heard much more often in Belgium than in the Netherlands, where een kop(je) koffiea cup(-DIM) coffee or een koffiea coffee is preferred. This shows that it is also possible, in principle, to itemize mass nouns without visible morphological change ( form of conversion or coercion). This, in turn, suggests an alternative analysis for biertje, viz., as the diminutive form of countable bier(a) beer. A quick search in the CGN, however, shows that the diminutive form occurs much more often in the individualizing sense than the plain form. Moreover, although nominalization of adjectives is possible in Dutch, zoetsweet cannot be used to refer to something that is sweet (cf. below): for such cases the diminutive zoetjesweet-DIMserving of sweetener is the only option, which means that the Dutch diminutive can be used for individuation all by itself.

  • As noted above, a few nouns exist only as diminutives: meisjegirl (< magitsinmagit-DIMmaiden-DIM, see Etymologiebank); lachertjelaughable suggestion, situation (< lachento laugh).
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    Back formation meisbig girl is widely attested.

  • Occasionally the diminutive can give a derogatory connotation to a noun: een raar taaltjea strange lingo, wat weet zo'n onderwijzertje daar nou vanwhat does such.a teacher-DIM there now ofhow can such a simple teacher know?.
  • The exact semantics of deverbal diminutives is rather unpredictable: zitjeseat (zittento sit), dutjenap (duttento nap), slaapjenap (slapento sleep), strijkjestring ensemble (strijkento bow), zegjeword (zeggento say, only in the idiom zijn zegje doento have one's say), bedankjeword of thanks (bedankento thank), een aardig centjea nice cent-DIMa lot of money.
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    • the three nouns afdankertje, afleggertje, krijgertjegift (pejorative) (< afdankento discard, afleggento discard, < krijgento receive, to get) have both an unexpected form (one would have expected *afdankje, *aflegje, *krijgje) and an unexpected (passive) semantics: an afdankertje is not ‘a small one who discards’ but ‘something that is discarded, a valueless gift’. An alternative analysis would be as a diminutive of (unattested) nouns *afdanker, *aflegger (OK in the meaning ‘layer-out’), *krijger (OK in the meaning ‘warrior’ from the obsolete meaning krijgento make war), but then the passive meaning is still unexpected (although we do find forms such as bijsluiterinformation leaflet < bijsluitento enclose).
    • moetjeshotgun marriage is a rare case of a modal auxiliary moetenmust as input for a derivation process.
    • etentjeinformal dinner (etento eat) has a special form (one would expect *eetje). It may also be seen as the regular diminutive of the nominalized infinitive het etenthe eating, dinner (cf. deken.tjeblanket-DIM)- for which there are no parallels, and which is against the tendency for inflection to be peripheral to derivation. Note, however, that the noun eten is fully lexicalized.
  • Deadjectival diminutives can refer to things (zuurtjesweet < zuursour,cursiefjecolumn < cursiefitalic, geeltjepost-it, 25 guilder bill, old sermon < geelyellow, stilletjesmall loo < stilsilent), to persons (blondjeblonde woman), or to both (zoetjesweety, (serving of) sweetener < zoetsweet, oudjeelderly person, old thing).
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    Although A-to-N conversion is a more or less productive process, these forms cannot be considered to be diminutives of derived nouns: het zoetthe sweet cannot refer to something sweet, stil cannot mean toilet.

    Forms like vluggertjefast-er-DIMquicky and vroegertjeearly-er-DIMstarting/finishing early are possibly derived from the comparative forms vluggerfaster and vroegerearlier, providing possible counterexamples to the tendency of inflection occurring peripheral to derivation. Booij (1996), however, gives examples like meerderheidmore-COMP-SUFFmajority and ouderlingold-COMP-SUFFelder in which inherent inflection, especially comparative formation, also feeds derivation.

    Meaning specialization: jongetjeboy, jonkieshot of young jenever, both from jongyoung.

    Next to oudjeelderly person, old thing we also find ouwetje with the same meaning possibilities. If this is the diminutive form of the nominalization oudeoud-e with lenition of intervocalic /d/, it is an exception to the generalization that such nominalizations in /e/ do not have diminutive forms.

    Sneeuwwitjesnow-white-DIMSnow White is the only diminutive form based on an adjectival compound (De Haas and Trommelen 1993).

  • diminutives derived from numerals most often refer to banknotes (vijfjefiver, tientje10, twintigje20, vijfentwintigje25, vijftigje50,honderdje100, duizendje1000) or coins (dubbeltjedouble-DIM10 cents), kwartjequarter-DIM25 cents, halfjehalf-DIM2.5 cents), but also to other things: a zestientje16-DIM is a sterile gauze pad measuring 1/16 m², a zesje6-DIM is the absolute minimum to pass a test.
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    The form eentjeone-DIM is used only in constructions like in mijn/zijn/haar/ons/hun eentjein my/his/her/our/their one-DIMby myself/himself/herself, all alone. This forms part of a small constructional network with met POSS tweetjeswith POSS 2-DIM-Sthe two of us, etc.

  • There are two diminutives derived from prepositions, uitjetrip, excursion < uitout and ommetjedetour, stroll < omaround.
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    The word rondjesmall circle, round trip may be a third case (< rondround, but derivation from an adjectival basis (rondround) is another possibility.

  • There are a few diminutives derived from adverbs: toetjedesert (toe can mean 'in addition'), apartjeaside, voorafjeappetizer, tussendoortjesnack.
  • A few diminutives are formed on the basis of phrases: twaalfuurtjetwelve-hour-DIM(wrapped) lunch, onderonsjeunder-us-DIMprivate conversation, vergeetmijnietjeforget-me-not-DIMforget-me-not, myosotis.
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Shetter (1959): "Nearly everyone with some knowledge of the Dutch language has been struck by the frequency of its use of diminutives. Greater familiarity, especially with the spoken idiom, only strengthens the realization that they play a highly important expressive role. It is hardly surprising that the diminutive — usually defined as primarily an indicator of smallness in kind — is associated with and sometimes even explained through the physical smallness of the country itself. And yet, although diminutives are found in the earliest medieval Dutch texts, their use seems to have come into particular favor in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the "Golden Age" of cultural and commercial expansion in Holland, a period of great prosperity in which a bourgeois hominess and contentment began to find expression in literary form. They occupy an increasingly important place in erotic poetry, for instance that of P. C. Hooft (1581-1647) and J. van den Vondel (1587-1679). In the eighteenth century, their extreme popularity in the language of polite society is reflected in the appearance of satires. Probably the most famous is that of Justus van Effen in his Hollandsche Spectator, one of the moralizing serials popular at the time. In a series of essays purporting to recount the love affair of a young middle-class lady named Agnietje, van Effen pokes fun at his fellow citizens by sprinkling passages with diminutives to the point of absurdity. The excessive use of them especially among women as an expression of cozy familiarity was satirized only a few years later by Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken in their novel Sara Burgerhart (1782)."

[+] Inflectional properties

The plural form of diminutives is always in /s/: huisjes boompjes beestjeslittle houses, little trees, little animals; the same holds for the (southern) variants in -ke: ribbekesrib-DIM-sribs.

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A few diminutive forms have an unpredictable meaning in the plural only: muisjelittle mouse - muisjessugar-coated aniseed, lit. little mice, sterretjesmall star - sterretjes ziensee stars (after having had a blow on one's head.

[+] Syntactic properties

Diminutives are always countable neuter nouns. If a base noun has specific subcategorization properties, these may be inherited by the diminutive: a middel tegen verkoudheidremedy against the cold can be made into a middeltje tegen verkoudheidremedy against the cold, and from makelaar in koffiebroker in coffee we can construct makelaartje in koffie.

[+] Morphological potential

Certain diminutives can be input to adjective formation by means of the suffix -achtig (always with an extra /s/), e.g. meisjesachtiggirl-s-likegirlish, sprookjesachtigfairy-tale-like, magical; other kinds of suffixation seem to be impossible.

Diminutives enter into compound formation easily: eekhoorntjesbroodsquirrel-DIM-s-breadcep, honingdropjehoney licorice, verjaardagsbloemetjebirthday-s-flower-DIMbirthday bouquet. If they are the left-hand part, there is always a link morpheme s: meisjeslachgirl-s-laughgirl's smile, huisjesmelkerhouse-DIM-s-milk-erslum lord, eikeltjeskoffieacorn-DIM-s-coffeeacorn coffee, vergeetmijnietjesblauwforget-me-not-DIM-s-blueas blue as a forget-me-not.

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Mattens (1970) proposes to explain the /s/ after diminutive forms functioning as left-hand parts of compounds in terms of countability (cf. also (Hoekstra 1984)).

Various diminutive forms have developed a special meaning as left-hand parts of compounds, e.g. vrouwtjeswoman-DIM-s functions as feminizing prefixoid, mostly restricted to animals (Van der Wouden 2007). It forms a small paradigm with mannetjesman-DIM-smale, wijfjeswoman-DIM-sfemale, jongetjesboy-DIM-smale and meisjesgirl-DIM-sfemale.

Within the clothing domain, we have diminutive prefixoids for various ornamental patterns, e.g. bloemetjes-flower-DIM-sfloral as in bloemetjesjurkflowery dress, dress with a floral pattern, streepjes-line-DIM-slined as in streepjesbroekstriped trousers, and ruitjesdiamond-DIM-scheckered as in ruitjesoverhemdplaid shirt.

The diminutive has also developed into a means of intensifying adjectives, on top of the elative compound construction (which is rife with collocational restrictions itself). Consider the following examples:

Table 4
adjective elative compound intensifying diminutive compound
zwartblack gitzwartjet blackvery black gitjezwartjet-DIM blackvery very black
verliefdin love stapelverliefdheap in-lovemadly in love stapeltjeverliefdheap-DIM in-loveeven more in love
dolcrazy hoorndolhorn crazytotally crazy hoorntjesdolhorn-DIM-S crazyeven more crazy

Morris (2013) offers an overview and an analysis in terms of Construction Morphology. Note that the diminutive form in this special type of elative compound is often without the link morpheme /s/.

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  • Booij, Geert1998Prosodic output constraints in morphologyKehrein, Wolfgang & Wiese, Richard (eds.)Phonology and morphology of the Germanic languagesTübingenNiemeyer143-163
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  • Hoekstra, Eric1995Iets over eerste leden van samenstellingenLeuvense Bijdragen84491-504
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  • Mattens, W.H.M1970De indifferentialis. Een onderzoek naar het anumerieke gebruik van het substantief in het Algemeen Bruikbaar NederlandsAssenVan Gorcum
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  • Oostendorp, Marc van2000Phonological ProjectionNiemeyer
  • Schutter, Georges de, Berg, Boudewijn van den, Goeman, Ton & Jong, Thera de2005Morfologische atlas van de Nederlandse dialectenAmsterdamAmsterdam University Press
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