Expressing diminutiveness in English – an overview based on fairytales

Written by: Mariya Bagasheva-Koleva,
SWU Blagoevgrad


This paper is concerned with diminutiveness – how it is expressed in English, and some specifics of forming and using diminutive forms in English. It presents a comparison between English and Bulgarian languages, using examples from two fairytales – “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Little Match-Seller” by Hans Christian Andersen.

I chose these two particular fairytales for two reasons: first, “The Ugly Duckling” is one of my little daughter’s favourite fairytales. I have read it times and times again, and it was while reading it that I came up with the idea of this presentation; and second, the titles of these fairytales illustrate the two types of expressing diminutiveness in English: synthetic – by a diminutive suffix, e.g. “duckling”, and analytic – by the adjective “little”.

Talking of fairytales, the image of children instantly comes to our mind. When we communicate with children, we intentionally, or not, change our intonation, our choice of vocabulary. Our speech becomes more emotional and informal.

Expressing emotions in a text

Many words not only denote certain meanings but they also show the attitude of the speaker. So, very often the lexical meaning of a word overlaps with the emotional evaluation of the speaker. Emotion is associated with mood, temperament, personality and disposition. There is huge connection between emotions and conversation. A person’s emotional state is directly connected with the specific word choices one makes to express their thoughts. Particular words indicate that specific feelings are being expressed.

The language people use depends on their disposition in a particular situation. In every language, there are certain verbal means of expressing different emotions. Some languages are considered to be more emotional than others because of the number of the verbal means used to express various emotions. One way of expressing our emotions in language is by using diminutives. Languages like Russian, Bulgarian, Czech, Polish, Italian, Spanish and French, have an array of diminutive suffixes, which are used to express diminutiveness for nouns-proper and common, in masculine, feminine and neuter gender. In most Slavic languages, there is a wide variety of diminutive forms for names, to the point that for non-native speakers it can be difficult to connect a nickname to the original. In addition, diminutives can be formed not only of nouns but also of other parts of speech like adjectives, adverbs, verbs and even numerals.

For example, in Russian a grammatical diminutive can be applied to nouns (домик), adjectives (хорошенький) and adverbs (частенько); in addition, in Bulgarian, they can also be applied to pronouns (моичък, твоичък), numerals (едничко, двечки) and verbs (слушкай, гледкай) . (Васева, 2006).

In some languages there are double diminutive forms (1), in others – even more (2).

(1)   in Bulgarian – куфар → куфарче → куфарченце (a suitcase)
глава → главица → главичка (a head)
in Russian –  сестра → сестренка→сестричка ( a sister)
дочь→ дочка→  доченька ( a daughter)

(2) in Polish – żaba (frog) → żabcia, żabusia, żabeńka, żabuleńka, żabeczka, żabunia, żabka
kot (cat)kotek, koteczek, kociątko, kociak, kociaczek, kocik, kociczek, kotuś, kotunio
in Russian – Екатерина → Катя, Катюша,Катенька,  Катька, Катюшка
Дмитрий → Дима, Митя, Димка, Димушка, Димечка, Митюшка, Митенька

Compared to such languages, English is considered to be less emotional and lacks the variety of means for expressing different emotional states, which exist in the other languages. However, there are lexical and morphological devices in English which are used to express positive or negative emotions.

What are diminutives?

Traditionally, the term “diminutive” has been used to refer to words that denote smallness and possibly also express the speaker’s attitude which can be positive or negative, depending on linguistic and situational aspects in a certain context (Schneider, 2003, p.4). After consulting a number of dictionaries for a definition of the term “diminutive”, I came up with almost the same results: the sources give two main definitions of the term – first, it indicates smallness; it denotes an object extremely small in size, tiny; and second, by semantic extension, it indicates qualities such as youth, familiarity, affection, or contempt (The Free Online Dictionary).

Jurafsky (Jurafsky, D., 1996, p.542) proposed a universal structure for the semantics of the diminutive that includes the meanings of affection, sympathy, intimacy, contempt, etc.

The basic meaning of diminutiveness is “smallness of the object named”; endearment, intimacy, etc. is secondary and dependent on the context or the attitudes of the interlocutors. (Wikipedia).

In some languages, diminutives are formed in a regular way by adding affixes to nouns and proper names. In English the alteration is often conveyed through clipping, either alone or combined with an affix. English diminutives tend to be shorter and more colloquial than the basic form of the word. Diminutives formed by adding affixes in other languages are often longer and not necessarily colloquial.

Diminutive Formation in English

According to Schneider (2004) there are two types of diminutive formation in the English language: the morphological type, also called the synthetic diminutive formation, and syntactic type, also called analytical.

The synthetic type includes prefixation (e.g. mini-cruise, micro-processor), suffixation (e.g. leaflet, kitten), reduplication (e.g. John-John, goody-goody; and rhyming reduplication e.g. Annie-Pannie, Brinnie-Winnie), compounding (e.g. baby tree, dwarf tree) and truncation, which is a subtype of clipping (e.g. Mike<Michael, Andrew>Andy).

The analytical type uses “little” as a diminutive and not as an adjective of size, e.g. “Have a little cigarette” (Schneider, 2004).

Diminutives in English – Do They Exist?

Many researchers such as Jespersen (1948) and Turner (1973) maintain that the English language has only few diminutives if any. They claim that the diminutives in English are “isolated baby forms” and that “productive diminutive derivation hardly exists” (qtd in Schneider 75). By using the term “isolated baby forms” Schneider infers that diminutives are restricted to “child or caretaker speech”. Diminutives are always informal, but this does not mean that only children use diminutives, or that diminutives only appear in nursery speech (Rusek, M. 2005).

It is true that the usual contexts where we use diminutives are those involving children and pets. But there are other contexts in which diminutives can be used although not so often. This usage is connected with the first basic meaning of the diminutive – denoting a small object. This meaning is not restricted to a certain context or register. As it refers to a small size, it can be found in different contexts when a person gives an objective description of a small object. For example, a small house/plane/group/tree, etc.

When we talk of animals and birds, there are sometimes different words which denote their young ones. For instance,

bear-cub                     horse-foal
bull-calf                     sheep-lamb
goat-kid                     butterfly-caterpillar

There are forms which have a diminutive suffix, but they refer to a young animal or bird denoting the opposition “young – adult”, without expressing any emotions.

For instance,

bird-nestling             eagle-eaglet
cat-kitten                  goose-gosling
dog-puppy                pig-piglet

These forms can be found in contexts not connected with children and which are not informal, such as scientific texts or biology textbooks. They can hardly be defined as emotional.

In English, the objective evaluation of an item being small in size can be expressed in four ways:

1) by using the adjective “small” + a noun expressing the lexical meaning (with reference to size)
ex:   a small town/ stadium/ stone, etc.

2) by using the adjective “young” + a noun expressing the lexical meaning (with reference to age)
ex:   a young woman/ bird/ animal, etc.

We can also use the word “baby” + noun to express the idea of diminutiveness, on the one hand, and the meaning of “a young creature”, on the other hand.
ex: baby fly, baby camel; baby boy, baby girl

3) by using a diminutive lexical word denoting “a young bird/animal”
ex:  sheep-lamb

4) by using a diminutive suffix meaning “a young bird/animal” or “a small object”

ex: eagle-eaglet                            ball-bullet
goose-gosling                         cover-coverlet

The second meaning of the word “diminutive” is linked with emotional language and is more often used in an informal register or in contexts referring to children. It is connected with words or word forms denoting affection, familiarity, intimacy, sympathy, contempt. The most usual way to express these emotions in English is to use the word “little”, which can be called periphrastic or analytic diminutive. English usages of “little” include contempt (“you little so-and-so”), female (“the little woman”), partitive/individuating (“a little water”, “rest a little”), small type (“little finger” to mean specifically the pinkie), approximation (“a little tired”), and children (“my little ones”) (Jurafsky, 1996, p.38).

There is distinction between “little”, which can occur in any of these senses, and “small”, which usually occurs only in the central sense – “small size”.

All in all, “small” denotes “size”, while “little” has diminutive and emotional meanings. They are not usually interchangeable, and can even be combined in one phrase, for example, “a small quiet little street” (малка тиха уличка). In some noun phrases, however, they could be interchanged, e.g. a small town, and a little town, a small girl and a little girl.

Diminutives in Fairytales

The context in which we can apparently use a lot of emotional language and where we can find examples of diminutives is fairytales. Intended to be read to and by children, fairytales are an enormous source of all types of emotional language. It is in fairytales where the extremities meet – the good meets the evil, the hero fights the villain; there are dwarfs and giants, talking animals and talking objects, illusion and magic. Undoubtedly, this is the context for emotional language.

I used one English version of “The Ugly Duckling” with its Bulgarian translation (Table 1), and two English versions of “The Little Match-Seller” with a Bulgarian translation (Table 2). The two variants of the second fairytale came with different titles: “The Little Match-Seller” and “The Little Match Girl”.

As can be seen from Table 1, the English version has more various ways of expressing diminutiveness than the Bulgarian text. For the diminutive form “пате/патенце/патенца” there are seven variants in English – combining the objective description of age (e.g. young brood, the young ducks, a young one, the young bird) and the emotional reference by using a diminutive suffix and the adjective “little” (e.g. little ducklings, ducklings, duckling). The same applies to “детенце, дечица” – little children, the little ones, the young ones, where “little” expresses “affection, endearment” as well as “young children”.

The phrases “бедното патенце” and “бедното грозно патенце” combine diminutiveness expressing “a young bird” and emotional expression of sympathy and affection denoted by the usage of “poor” and “little” + the diminutive suffix –ling or a noun such as “creature, thing, bird”.

The adjective “short” can be used instead of “small” when referring to “length”, e.g. ”very short legs”, which phrase in Bulgarian has a diminutive form of an adjective + the adjective “short” + the diminutive of the noun, e.g. “мънички, къси крачка”.  In “Chickie short legs” an additional diminutive suffix –ie is used so as to express affection and intimacy. In Bulgarian this is “Кокошчица късокрачица” which combines two diminutive forms of the nouns.

In the Bulgarian text, there are 12 more diminutives which have no diminutive form in their English counterparts. These are the nouns “главичка, крачка, парцалче, перца, крилце, слънчице, коридорче” and the adjectives “цяло-целеничко, милички, грозничко”. And there is only one phrase which in Bulgarian has no diminutive form, but in English it expresses diminutiveness – “сиромашка селска колиба” – “a poor little cottage”. I think this is because in Bulgarian the noun “колиба” means “a small cottage” and there is no need to emphasise on its size by a diminutive suffix as there are already too many diminutives in the text.

In the second fairytale (Table 2), there are fewer diminutive forms but they have the same pattern in English:

“poor” and/or “little” + noun – to express affection and sympathy (e.g. a poor little girl, the poor little one, poor little child/creature, the little girl, little girl);
“little” + noun – to refer to a small, tiny object (e.g. little feet, little hands, a little candle, the little flame, one little match);

There is one form of a noun in the first version in English that contains the suffix –ster – “youngster”, which usually expresses contempt and has a derogative meaning (cf gangster, mobster, gamester) because it combines with the lexical meaning of these words, which is negative; however, in this context it has no such connotation and simply means “a young girl”. There are 3 nouns in the Bulgarian version that do not have a diminutive form in the text (e.g. кибритена клечка, свещ, пламък), but they do have in the English version. However, it is not really necessary as there are another 9 nouns in the Bulgarian text containing diminutive forms (e.g. престилчица, парица, вратичка, клончета, etc), which express enough emotional senses in the fairytale.

As can be seen from Table 2, the number of diminutives used in the two versions is the same, but in Bulgarian the diminutive forms are numerous, which again confirms the fact that Bulgarian language has more lexical means of expressing diminutiveness and their frequency is higher than in English.


On the basis of the language material I used in this presentation I can suggest that although English has fewer language means to express diminutiveness, there are still ways of expressing different emotions in language, and diminutiveness is one of them. Mentioning English language and diminutives in one sentence can be rather unusual as many grammarians say that English has few diminutives and that they are not common in the language. However, as I mentioned before, there are two basic ways of forming diminutive forms in English – synthetically and analytically. English is an analytical language, so it is supposed that the analytical type of diminutive formation is ‘more characteristic of English than the synthetic type’ (Schneider, 123). There are two words in English to denote ‘smallness’ – ‘small’ and ‘little’. ‘Little’ is considered to be rather subjective and expressing affection, while ‘small’ refers mainly to the actual size (or age) of the object named. Therefore, ‘little’ is used to communicate one’s attitude, and ‘small’ to express one’s idea of size. Other adjectives, like ‘poor’ and ‘pathetic’, can also be used, alone or in combination with ‘little’, to express the feeling of sympathy and affection.

Although there are not many diminutive suffixes in English, they do exist. Some diminutive suffixes are native, e.g. bullock, hillock, chicken, maiden; others are borrowed from other languages, e.g. gosling (Norse), lambkin (Dutch), cigarette (French). They are not productive suffixes, but still suffixation is one of the ways to form diminutive words in English.

On the whole, as the two types can combine to express diminutiveness, for example, a little duckling or poor little children, they both should be considered when talking about diminutiveness in English.


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Table 1: The Ugly Duckling

English Bulgarian
Young brood
The young ducks
Little ducklings
A young one
The young bird
A little child детенце
Little children
The little ones
The young ones
The poor young thing
The poor little thing
Poor thing/bird
Бедното патенце
Little birds
Малките птички
My little son Синче
Very short legs Мънички, къси крачка
Chickie short legs Кокошчица късокрачица
the poor creature
poor little creature
the poor duckling
the poor little duckling
poor ugly creature
Бедното грозно патенце
The ugly duckling Грозното патенце
A poor little cottage Сиромашка селска колиба
No diminutive equivalent in English Главичка
Милички патенца
Милички деца
Много милички

Table 2: The Little Match-Seller

Bulgarian English I English II
Бедно, малко момиченце A poor little girl The poor little girl/one
Крачка/крачета Little feet Little feet
Little naked feet
Бедното дете/момиченце Poor little child/creature
Момиченце The little girl
Little girl
The little one
Нито парица
Малките му ръчички Little hands
Усмихнати устица
Над мъничкия труп Upon a little pathetic figure
Кибритена клечка One little match
Свещ A little candle A little candle
пламък The little flame

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