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What Is a Diminutive?

By Suzanne S. Wiley
Updated May 23, 2024
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A diminutive is a unit in language that turns another word into a smaller or younger version of itself. It is also an adjective or noun describing something small in stature. Diminutives may be segments that attach to words, or entire words themselves. If the diminutive is formed by a segment attaching to another word, that new word can be called a diminutive form, such as “‘Annie’ is the diminutive form of ‘Ann.’” Suffixes are a common form, though diminutives can be prefixes, too.

The English word “little” is an example of a diminutive. Not only does the word itself indicate a diminutive or small status, but speakers can also add it to other words that already indicate “young” or “small” to emphasize or specify that the item is even younger or smaller, like “little boy.” “Boy” already implies youth, but a boy can be a 16-year-old teenager who towers over his parents. Adding “little” narrows the definition further to show that the boy in question is definitely small and young.

Diminutives can be pejorative, too, as in the English phrase “little creep.” This is often used in situations where the speaker is thoroughly annoyed or even angry with the person being called a creep, and it’s meant to add an extra insult. The result is the reduction of the person being called a creep to something unimportant like a bug.

The context of the sentence determines the intended meaning. For example, “A little boy walked into the library” is about a small boy entering a library. If a father tells his son, “Listen, little boy, don’t tell me what to do,” though, the “little” is meant to emphasize to the son that he is less experienced than and not as knowledgeable as his father.

Another very common use of diminutives is to convey familiarity and closeness by modifying a person’s name, and they are often considered nicknames in some languages. The diminutives can shorten, modify or completely change the original word, such as English “Dave” for David or “Peg,” for Margaret. Colloquial Cantonese, for example, uses the diminutive “-jái” to create diminutive words like “māaujái,” or kitten, from “māau,” cat. Speakers can also add this suffix to male names to indicate closeness to that person.

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