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Diminutive formation

Afrikaans nouns, like some other Germanic languages, bear the grammatical feature diminutive. While the neutral forms of nouns are morphologically unmarked, the diminutive is expressed by one of the following allomorphs: -ie /i/, -tjie /ki/, -etjie /iki/ or -pie /pi/. The specific choice depends largely on the phonological structure of the stem, making it a remarkable example of a morphonological process in Afrikaans.


The diminutive formation in its written form is relatively uncomplicated, whereas its phonological and phonetic aspects are not, as is evident from the lack of unity amongst different accounts to be found in the available descriptions (Botha and Burger 1921; Kempen 1940). Here we focus on the most complete descriptions, namely that of De Villiers (1965), Wissing (1971) and Donaldson (1993).

De Villiers (1965) acknowledged four independent diminutive forms, which he called metamorphemes, viz. /i/ (-ie), /pi/ (-pie), /iki/ (-etjie), and /ki/ (-kie, -tjie, -jie). This is contrary to some descriptions in the case of for example Dutch diminutive formation that see -tje, -je, -pje, -kje, -etje as allomorphs (see the Dutch topic on diminutive allomorphy).

De Villiers (1965) proposed the following rules:

  1. The phoneme /i/: preceded by stem-final /f/, /s/, /x/, /p/ and /k/.
  2. /pi/: preceded by one of the (long) vowels /a/, /e/ and /o/, unstressed schwa /ə/ rarely /i/, or the diphthongs /œy/ and /əi/, all of those with as stem-final /m/
  3. /iki/: after the short vowels /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /ɔ/, /œ/ and /ə/ + /m/, /n/, /l/, /r/ or stressed vowel + /ŋ/.
  4. In all other cases the diminutive form is /ki/.

These rules can be explicated more precisely as follows, supplemented by some representative examples (orthographic forms enclosed in < >):

  1. Stem-final voiceless obstruent coda, preceded by all types of vowel as well as diphthongs take as diminutive morpheme -ie ( /i/), e.g.: /f/ in draffie, beffie, skoffie and skyfie; /s/ in kassie, bessie, bossie and huisie; /x/ in laggie, steggie, toggie en suigie; /p/ in lappie, skeppie, skoppie, skapie, lopie, skepie and pypie; /k/ in rakkie, rekkie, rokkie and buikie. Cases with /t/ and /d/ as coda are excluded here – see 4. Note the orthographic convention whereby the obstruent is doubled in order to indicate the preceding vowel to be short, thus draffie < draf, etc.
    1. Stem-final nasal consonant /m/, preceded by one of the long vowels /a/, /e/, /o/ and /y/ or a diphthong ( /œy/ or /əi/) takes -pie ( /pi/), e.g: raampie, liggaampie, sweempie, oompie, kostuumpie, museumpie, pluimpie and rympie.
      1. Stem-final schwa /ə/ + /m/, (i.e. em and um takes -pie ( /pi/) too: asempie, besempie, bliksempie, bodempie, boesempie, helsempie, itempie, Willempie, wasempie, sweempie, oompie, skuimpie, rympie, akwariumpie, albumpie, forumpie, podiumpie, stadiumpie.
      2. Words ending on two sonorant consonants (in fact rm and lm) also has -pie ( /pi/) as diminutive suffix: armpie, halmpie, dermpie, filmpie, stormpie, skelmpie, uniformpie, wurmpie. Note that written lm and rm are identified phonemically as /lm/ and /rm/, but via insertion of schwa surface as [ləm] respectively [rəm] (see Coda in Afrikaans).
  2. Stem-final stressed short vowels ( /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /ɔ/. /œ/ and /ə/) + any sonorant consonant ( /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /l/ and /r/) has -etjie ( /iki/) as diminutive suffix: kammetjie, lemmetjie; blommetjie, skrummetjie; kannetjie; pennetjie; sonnetjie; vinnetjie, wangetjie; tongetjie; dingetjie; balletjie; belletjie, kolletjie; krulletjie; karretjie; sterretjie; snorretjie, skilletjie; bulletjie. This applies to a small number of polysyllabic nouns of this type too, providing the final syllable is stressed, e.g.: kol['ɔ]mmetjie; ges['ə]nnetjie; jap['ɔ]nnetjie; ser['ə]ngetjie; bakat['ɛ]lletjie; lap['ɛ]lletjie; amar['ə]lletjie; krokod['ə]lletjie; makr['ɔ]lletjie; versk['ə]lletjie; katr['ɔ]lletjie; kastr['ɔ]lletjie.
  3. A number of subcategories is known in the case of the diminutive suffix /ki/, spelled as either kie, tjie or jie:
    1. The suffix -kie: Stem-final unstressed syllable with mainly schwa as vowel + /ŋ/ has -kie /ki/ as diminutive suffix: eekhorinkie; beddinkie; dorinkie; horinkie; garinkie; kussinkie; seninkie; nedersettinkie; pierinkie; verversinkie; varinkie; vinkie.

      Note that in the spelling form of these words g is deleted.

    2. -tjie:
      1. Stems ending on vowels or diphthongs in open syllables, irrespective of stress placement:
        • Long vowels (stress on final syllable of stems): pa'tjie; karba'tjie; treetjie; buro'tjie; keutjie.
        • Short vowels (stress on prefinal syllable of stems): oupa'tjie; papattatjie; mielietjie; koedoetjie; episod[ə]tjie.
        • Diphthongs (stress on final syllable of stems): bytjie; jukskeitjie; pasteitjie; valleitjie; truitjie; outjie; juffroutjie; makoutjie.
      2. Stems ending on long vowels or diphthongs closed by sonorant consonants /n/, /r/ or /l/:
        • Long vowels: baantjie; aartjie; skaaltjie; boontjie; boortjie; skooltjie; beentjie; veertjie; deeltjie; tribuuntjie; skuurtjie; molekuultjie; seuntjie; deurtjie; peultjie.
        • Diphthongs: tuintjie; uiltjie; lyntjie; fonteintjie; byltjie; Paultjie.
      3. Stems ending on short vowels closed by one of /n/, /r/ or /l/ + /t/ or /d/:
        • baantjie; aartjie; skaaltjie; boontjie; boortjie; skooltjie; beentjie; veertjie; deeltjie; tribuuntjie; skuurtjie; molekuultjie; seuntjie; deurtjie; peultjie.
    3. The suffix -kie is presented as either -jie or -tjie, depending on the form of the preceding stem. In the case of -jie, it can end a) on /t/ as coda, b) on one of the alveolar sonorant consonant codas /n/, /l/ and /r/, or when -tjie, or c) on one of a number of coda clusters, comprising an alveolar sonorant consonant + a voiced or voiceless alveolar plosive, /d/ and /t/ (reflected in the spelling by d and t). In such case, the possible combinations are nd; nt; ld; lt or rd; rt. While diminutive formation acts on phonetic rather than phonological outputs, in fact these clusters are restricted to the sonorants [n], [l] and [r] + /t/, i.e. [nt], [lt] and [rt]. Note that the quality of the nuclues vowel of the end-rhyme also plays a role (to be shown in more detail below).

      For ease of comparison, an example of each, if existing words are available, are presented with this description as guideline.

      1. [t] as coda:
        • Short vowels + [t]: lied, riet; hoed; voet; minuut; bed; pet; bad; kat; lid; lit; put; god; pot.
        • Long vowels + [t]: daad; maat; brood, skoot; kleed; beet; geut.
        • Diphthongs + [t]: tyd; byt; beleid; universiteit; geluid; skuit; boud; bout.
Taking into consideration that voiced obstruents get unvoiced through the process of Final devoicing words with phonetic [t] as coda resulting from phonemic /d/ react the same as the above ones. Some examples:
  1. -ie /i/: after stem-final obstruents (e.g. tak ~ takkie /tɑki/ [tɑki / tɑci] branch.DIM)
  2. -etjie /iki/: after short vowels + sonorant consonant as coda (e.g. kan ~ kannetjie /kɑniki / kɑnici/ can.DIM)
  3. -pie /pi/: after long vowels + stem-final /m/ (e.g. raam ~ raampie /rampi/ frame.DIM)
  4. -kie; -tjie; -jie /ki/: e.g. (plank ~ plankie /plɑŋki/ [plɑŋki / plɑŋci] shelf.DIM, tree ~ treetjie /treki/ [triəki / triəci] step.DIM, akteur ~ akteurtjie /ɑktørki/ [ɑktørki / ɑktørci] actor.DIM, prent ~ prentjie /prɛnki/ [prɛnki / prɛnci / prɛinci]
  5. stem-final diphthongs by ~ bytjie /bəiki/ [bəiki / bəici] bee.DIM

De Villiers (1965) mentions kiempie as solitary case with /i/ as vowel, and then adds kiemetjie as alternative form. Words like akroniem acronym and sinoniem synonym usually are not used in the diminutive form. Such words will have -pie, should they be used as such.

[+]Influence of diminutive suffixes on stems

Except for the presence of regressive palatalisation within some of the diminutive suffixes that has been highlighted thus far, several other cases has been documented. In this section the most salient of these are dealt with.

Incfluence of the diminutive suffix on the base
Table 1: Incfluence of the diminutive suffix on the base
Base Word Eng. Phonemic Phonetic
kat cat /kɑt/ [kɑt]
bad bath /bɑd/ [bɑt]
plant plant /plɑnt/ [plant]
tand tooth /tɑnd/ [tɑnd]
Table 2
Diminutive word Phonemic Phonetic 1 Phonetic 2 Phonetic 3 Phonetic 4
katjie /kɑt+ji/ [kɑiki] [kɑjci] [kɑ ͥci] [kɑici]
badjie /bɑt+ji/ [bɑiki] [bɑjci] [bɑ ͥci] [bɑici]
plantjie /tɑnd+ji/ [plɑiɲki] [plɑɲci] [plɑ ͥɲki] [plɑiɲci]
tandjie /plɑnt+ji/ [tɑiɲki] [tɑɲci] [tɑ ͥɲci] [tɑiɲci]

Consider the possible pronunciations of the following sets of words in tables 1 and 2.

  1. Other than De Villiers (1965), who accepts /ki/ as basic diminutive form (see 4 above), we postulate the more concrete /ji/ instead.
  2. The coda /d/ of the base singular forms bad and tand are devoiced to [t] via the process of final devoicing of obstruents.
  3. These four of words all have acknowledged alternative diminutive forms, presented in Phonetic_1 – Phonetic_4. [c] in [ci] of Phonetic_1 is sometimes deemed as allophonic [c] – i.e. as a palatalised product under the influence of the following high [i]. Le Roux and Pienaar (1927), (1967); Wissing (1971) and Donaldson (1993) prefer [c], while De Villiers and Ponelis (1987) use [k].

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.

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