Friday, May 21, 2010

Diminutives in Language

I just want to take a moment here to expound on one of my few bugaboos of the English language, a fact I have learned to tolerate but not to like. I think the language would be more fully rounded, in a sense more musical, more pleasing to the ear, if it had a predominant and consistent suffix to express both comparative smallness in size and familiarity or endearment. Other languages do, and I admire the way it works for them.

Let’s take a look at two different languages. Spanish, as an example of the Romance languages, employs a few diminutive forms quite readily, e. g. “–ito (m), -ita (f)” and “–illo (m), -illa (f).” Dutch, like English a Germanic language, uses “-je” (often with a preceding consonant) to designate small size or familiarity; the diminutive is used with nouns, names, adjectives and other word forms.

It’s not that English doesn’t have diminutives, it’s just that nearly all of them are borrowed from other languages: -ette (et) from the French creating words like parkette and caplet. From Old Norse comes “-ing” in duckling and darling (familiar for “dear”). The “-y” or “-ie” comes from the Scottish (who themselves use an adjective “wee” rather than a suffix.) The Germanic “-kin, -ken” is very infrequent.

The problem is that none of the suffix constructions are productive, that is, used in common word formation in daily speech. And that, in my opinion, is one of the greater flaws of the English language.

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