Make it small: the Dutch love affair with diminutives
UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, writes about languages and cultures, helping you to expand your knowledge of Dutch grammar and vocabulary.
The Dutch love to pass the time talking about ditjes en datjes (this and that). And as you may have noticed they like to throw in a few words ending in -je or -tje or -pje while they’re at it.
In fact, the Dutch seem almost obsessed with diminutive words. Here are a few ways in which these handy words enrich the Dutch language.
The many meanings of -je, -tje and -pje
Of course the most obvious way diminutives are used is to talk about size. No need to use words such as "little" or "small" when you can just turn huis into huisje and hond into hondje.
It isn’t always quite this straightforward, though. What about the word buikje? You could say a buikje (paunch) is bigger than the standard buik (stomach or belly).
On the other hand, you can also see buikje as a smaller version of a bierbuik (beer belly); from that perspective, the diminutive is used as a way of softening what could otherwise be perceived as harsh.
Bier or biertje?
Another use of the diminutive is to make uncountable things countable. Just think of beverages: when offering someone a glass of cola or bier, you can simply ask "colaatje?" or "biertje?"
Similarly, friet is an uncountable mass of fries, but a frietje is one portion (or one french fry). The same goes for wijn/wijntje and fris/frisje (soda).
But strangely enough for a nation that consumes huge quantities of dairy products, this trick doesn’t work for milk: asking for a melkje will get you some funny looks.
There are some diminutives that have acquired a life of their own, independent of the word they derive from. Sprookje (fairytale) is an example: although the word shares linguistic roots with spreken (to speak), there is no such thing as a sprook.
Another case is that of toetje (dessert, afters): you can’t say you’d like a toe, as that just means "after".
Just like in Spanish, Dutch allows you to add diminutive endings not just onto nouns, i.e. things, but also onto adverbs. You can talk about someone creeping into the room not just in a stil way (quietly) but stilletjes.
In fact, in one of the traditional songs you might have heard recently in the supermarket, Sinterklaas is told: "Rijd toch niet zo stilletjes ons huisje voorbij" (Don’t ride past our house oh so quietly.)
In fact, the evening on which Sinterklaas is celebrated is commonly known as a "heerlijk avondje" (lovely evening). Which brings us to another use of diminutives - which may well be at the root of this Dutch linguistic obsession.
The reason why the Dutch are so generous with these words is that they have an affective quality: they express warmth, affection and, of course, gezelligheid!
So when someone is making conversation and talking about the weather, "lekker weertje!" just sounds that bit friendlier than it would without the -tje. And if it’s actually pouring down, the diminutive just serves to enhance the sarcasm.
And naturally -tje is built into the phrase for making small talk: "een praatje maken".
Gezelligheid is of course also connected to domesticity and the home: the Dutch expression for "settling down" is "huisje, boompje, beestje" ("house, tree, pet") - a triple whammy of cosiness and fuzzy feelings. And why sign off your email with regular groeten when you can use groetjes instead?
Finally, there is one more way to use these words that may not occur to Dutch locals, but which is familiar to anybody who has learnt Dutch or who is still trying to learn it.
The wonderful thing about words ending in -je is that you know where you stand in terms of article agreement. Since all words with a diminutive ending are neuter there is no need to worry about the de/het conundrum. It’s het every time!
This may be why some learners of Dutch go through a phase where everything they say sounds like baby talk.
As you can see we have a lot of reasons to be thankful for diminutives. They certainly add to the charm and quirkiness of the "rare taaltje" that is Dutch!
What are your favourite Dutch diminutives and how do you use them? Let us know in the comments below!
Sarah Welling works with UvA Talen, whose fast-paced courses help students make rapid progress in language learning. For more information visit the UvA Talen website.
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