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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
ding thing dingetje
banaan banana banaantje
streep line streepje
lichaam body lichaampje
koning king koninkje


In current standard Dutch, diminutive forms are constructed with the suffixes -tje (zeetje < zee sea), -je (boekje < boek book), -pje (boompje < boom tree), -kje (koninkje < koning king) and -etje (dingetje < ding thing).

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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 < boek book, boompie < boom tree, beessie < bees animal ), Southern Dutch has also diminutives in -ke plus allomorphs with their own distribution (Vandekerckhove 2005) (e.g. beddeke < bed bed, boekske < boek book, boomke < boom tree, dingske < ding thing) 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. mammie mommy, pappie daddy, makkie easy job (cf. gemakkelijk easy), sjekkie fag (< shag hand 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 dingetje small thing, romannetje small novel, parasolletje small sunshade
after monosyllabic words ending in /r/ preceded by short vowel karretje trolley, sterretje starlet, asterisk
pje /pjə/ after words ending in long vowel, diftong or schwa plus /m/ lichaampje small body, pruimpje small plum, bezempje little broom
after words ending in short vowel, plus /r/ or /l// plus /m/ zalmpje small salmon, wormpje small worm
kje /kjə/ after words with more than syllable ending in ing with penultimate stress koninkje little king, vergissinkje small mistake
je /jə/ after words ending in obstruent streepje small line, wereldje small world
-tje /çə/ in all other cases banaantje small banana, gitaartje small guitar, autootje small car, etudetje small étudekooitje small cagezenuwtje small 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 < hemd shirt 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 kas greenhouse and kast cupboard 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 pythontje small python, pelgrimmetje, pelgrimpje small pilgrim, sarongetje, sarongkje small 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, kippetje small chicken,popje, poppetje small doll, rugje, ruggetje small back etc.
  • words ending in long vowel plus sonorant consonant regularly get -pje or -tje, but -etje occurs as well: bloempje, bloemetje small flower, wieltje, wieletje small 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 - gaatje hole (cf. plural gaten holes), schip-scheepje ship (cf. plural schepen ships), etc.
  • no vowel lengthening: hof - hofje court (cf. plural hoven courts), gebrek - gebrekje lack (cf. plural gebreken defects), etc.
  • two forms: dag - dagje, daagje day (cf. plural dagen days), dak - dakje, daakje roof (cf. plural daken roofs), spel - spelletje, speeltje play, 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 bloemetje flower-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 speel play.

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 - radertjes wheel, kind - kindje - kindertjes child, blad - blaadje - blaadjes, bladertjes leaf.

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There are a few irregular diminutive forms, e.g. gympje sneaker (informal gympie) (< gymnastiekschoen gymnastics shoe) and Jantje < Jan proper 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. eventjes even-tjes for a short while (informally also effies) and stilletjes stil-etjes silently, 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: effekes for a short while (or efkes), zwakskes zwak-skes weakly.

[+]Input conditions, productivity

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

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

Table 3
Category Base Diminutive
N vrouw woman vrouwtje small woman, sweetheart
A lief sweet liefje sweetheart
V dutten to nap dutje nap
Num tien ten tientje ten euro note
P/Adv uit out uitje outing
NP twaalf uur twelve o'clock twaalfuurtje wrapped lunch
PP onder ons below/between us onderonsje private chat
Det dit en dat this and that ditjes en datjes odds and ends
Pron iets something ietsjes a 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 dubbeldikje double thick ice cream fromdubbeldik double 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 meisje girl, sprookje fairy tale (< obsolete sproke story < spreken to speak, see Etymologiebank), roodborstje red-breast-DIM robin, akkefietje spot of bother, trifle, beetje bit (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 (*blindetje blind-e-DIM < blind blind, *dovetje < doof deaf)
  • nouns derived by means of the suffix –e that forms female person names: no *kampioenetje from kampioene champion-e female champion, no *Grieksetje from Griekse Griek-s-e Greek woman
  • nouns derived by means of the suffix(es) –se: next to domineese clergyman’s wife’ no *domineesetje, and no *smidsetje derived from smidse blacksmith’s shop, forge
  • nouns derived by means of the discontinous affix (circumfix) ge ... te: no *gebergtetje from gebergte ge-berg-te mountains or *geraamtetje from ge.raam.te skeleton.
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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 < freule lady, tubetje < tube tube, kantinetje < kantine canteen. Moreover, complex words formed with other suffixes in schwa can get a diminutive as well (e.g. documentairetje < documentaire documentary, onvoldoendetje < onvoldoende insufficient mark). On top of that, the constraint appears not to be absolute in all cases: forms like gebergtetje small set of mountains/set of small mountains and kampioenetje small 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. dorpje small village) but, among other things, also for individuation (biertje serving of beer), as term of endearment (kindje little child, dear, lekker weertje nice weather-DIM nice weather), to express contempt (boekje unimportant 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 klein small: een klein huisje a small house-DIM a small house.
  • The diminutive is also used as a form of endearment: een aardig sommetje a nice sum-DIM an 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: Geertje dear Geert, Olgaatje sweet Olga’, Tonnie beloved Ton’. This is also possible with surnames: de Hallemannetjes komen vanavond The Halleman-DIM-s come tonight The Halleman family are visiting us tonight.
  • Sometimes the diminutive form of a noun translates as a completely separate lexical item in English: broodje bread roll < brood bread, loaf of bread, kaartje ticket < kaart map.
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    Hartje heart-DIM has developed a use as a preposition: hartje stad in 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 biertje a glass of beer (< bier beer), een pilsje a glass of beer (< pils pilsener, lager beer), een houtje a bit of wood (< hout wood), pleziertje favor (< plezier fun).
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    There are regional differences: een koffietje a coffee-DIM a cup of coffee is heard much more often in Belgium than in the Netherlands, where een kop(je) koffie a cup(-DIM) coffee or een koffie a 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, zoet sweet cannot be used to refer to something that is sweet (cf. below): for such cases the diminutive zoetje sweet-DIM serving 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: meisje girl (< magitsin magit-DIM maiden-DIM, see Etymologiebank); lachertje laughable suggestion, situation (< lachen to laugh).
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    Back formation meis big girl is widely attested.

  • Occasionally the diminutive can give a derogatory connotation to a noun: een raar taaltje a strange lingo, wat weet zo'n onderwijzertje daar nou van what does such.a teacher-DIM there now of how can such a simple teacher know?.
  • The exact semantics of deverbal diminutives is rather unpredictable: zitje seat (zitten to sit), dutje nap (dutten to nap), slaapje nap (slapen to sleep), strijkje string ensemble (strijken to bow), zegje word (zeggen to say, only in the idiom zijn zegje doen to have one's say), bedankje word of thanks (bedanken to thank), een aardig centje a nice cent-DIM a lot of money.
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    • the three nouns afdankertje, afleggertje, krijgertje gift (pejorative) (< afdanken to discard, afleggen to discard, < krijgen to 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 krijgen to make war), but then the passive meaning is still unexpected (although we do find forms such as bijsluiter information leaflet < bijsluiten to enclose).
    • moetje shotgun marriage is a rare case of a modal auxiliary moeten must as input for a derivation process.
    • etentje informal dinner (eten to eat) has a special form (one would expect *eetje). It may also be seen as the regular diminutive of the nominalized infinitive het eten the eating, dinner (cf. deken.tje blanket-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 (zuurtje sweet < zuur sour,cursiefje column < cursief italic, geeltje post-it, 25 guilder bill, old sermon < geel yellow, stilletje small loo < stil silent), to persons (blondje blonde woman), or to both (zoetje sweety, (serving of) sweetener < zoet sweet, oudje elderly 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 zoet the sweet cannot refer to something sweet, stil cannot mean toilet.

    Forms like vluggertje fast-er-DIM quicky and vroegertje early-er-DIM starting/finishing early are possibly derived from the comparative forms vlugger faster and vroeger earlier, providing possible counterexamples to the tendency of inflection occurring peripheral to derivation. Booij (1996), however, gives examples like meerderheid more-COMP-SUFF majority and ouderling old-COMP-SUFF elder in which inherent inflection, especially comparative formation, also feeds derivation.

    Meaning specialization: jongetje boy, jonkie shot of young jenever, both from jong young.

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

    Sneeuwwitje snow-white-DIM Snow 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 (vijfje fiver, tientje 10, twintigje 20, vijfentwintigje 25, vijftigje 50,honderdje 100, duizendje 1000) or coins (dubbeltje double-DIM 10 cents), kwartje quarter-DIM 25 cents, halfje half-DIM 2.5 cents), but also to other things: a zestientje 16-DIM is a sterile gauze pad measuring 1/16 m², a zesje 6-DIM is the absolute minimum to pass a test.
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    The form eentje one-DIM is used only in constructions like in mijn/zijn/haar/ons/hun eentje in my/his/her/our/their one-DIM by myself/himself/herself, all alone. This forms part of a small constructional network with met POSS tweetjes with POSS 2-DIM-S the two of us, etc.

  • There are two diminutives derived from prepositions, uitje trip, excursion < uit out and ommetje detour, stroll < om around.
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    The word rondje small circle, round trip may be a third case (< rond round, but derivation from an adjectival basis (rond round) is another possibility.

  • There are a few diminutives derived from adverbs: toetje desert (toe can mean 'in addition'), apartje aside, voorafje appetizer, tussendoortje snack.
  • A few diminutives are formed on the basis of phrases: twaalfuurtje twelve-hour-DIM (wrapped) lunch, onderonsje under-us-DIM private conversation, vergeetmijnietje forget-me-not-DIM forget-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 beestjes little houses, little trees, little animals; the same holds for the (southern) variants in -ke: ribbekes rib-DIM-s ribs.

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A few diminutive forms have an unpredictable meaning in the plural only: muisje little mouse - muisjes sugar-coated aniseed, lit. little mice, sterretje small star - sterretjes zien see 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 verkoudheid remedy against the cold can be made into a middeltje tegen verkoudheid remedy against the cold, and from makelaar in koffie broker 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. meisjesachtig girl-s-like girlish, sprookjesachtig fairy-tale-like, magical; other kinds of suffixation seem to be impossible.

Diminutives enter into compound formation easily: eekhoorntjesbrood squirrel-DIM-s-bread cep, honingdropje honey licorice, verjaardagsbloemetje birthday-s-flower-DIM birthday bouquet. If they are the left-hand part, there is always a link morpheme s: meisjeslach girl-s-laugh girl's smile, huisjesmelker house-DIM-s-milk-er slum lord, eikeltjeskoffie acorn-DIM-s-coffee acorn coffee, vergeetmijnietjesblauw forget-me-not-DIM-s-blue as 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. vrouwtjes woman-DIM-s functions as feminizing prefixoid, mostly restricted to animals (Van der Wouden 2007). It forms a small paradigm with mannetjes man-DIM-s male, wijfjes woman-DIM-s female, jongetjes boy-DIM-s male and meisjes girl-DIM-s female.

Within the clothing domain, we have diminutive prefixoids for various ornamental patterns, e.g. bloemetjes- flower-DIM-s floral as in bloemetjesjurk flowery dress, dress with a floral pattern, streepjes- line-DIM-s lined as in streepjesbroek striped trousers, and ruitjes diamond-DIM-s checkered as in ruitjesoverhemd plaid 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
zwart black gitzwart jet black very black gitjezwart jet-DIM black very very black
verliefd in love stapelverliefd heap in-love madly in love stapeltjeverliefd heap-DIM in-love even more in love
dol crazy hoorndol horn crazy totally crazy hoorntjesdol horn-DIM-S crazy even 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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