When I started learning Dutch, I quickly became acquainted with the Dutch diminutive. Unlike speakers of other languages, the Dutch do not use them only to indicate that something is small or cute. And this can be quite confusing at times.
illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek
Diminutives are extensions added to common words, to add a sense of smallness or cuteness to the meaning. While uncommon in English, these exist in many languages such as the Russian ‘-chk’ and ‘-ik’ or the Italian ‘-ino’, as in the word Cappuccino, which literally means ‘little hood’.
The Dutch diminutive ‘-tje’, however, can get pretty confusing. In my foreign mind, I instinctively translate the ‘-tje’ as something cute, a form of baby talk. In some contexts, this works fine: ‘huisje’ – a small or cute house, a ‘housey’. ‘Hondje’ – a small or cute dog, a ‘doggy’. But hearing students ask their professor ‘Mag ik een vraagje stellen?’, it sounds to me like ‘Can I ask a cute little, teeny tiny, question?’ Hardly an appropriate way to address a teacher.
I eventually learned that the Dutch diminutive is not always used for baby talk. It can be used to emphasize that a certain object is singular, or to give a new meaning to a word. ‘IJsje’, for instance, does not mean ‘little ice’, but rather an individual ice cream. ‘Meisje’ is not a cute maiden, simply a girl. Nevertheless, I can’t help being slightly amused whenever I am at the supermarket checkout and I’m offered a teeny tiny, cute little ‘bonnetje’.
David Katzin, PhD candidate in the Farm Technology group, from Israel
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