Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for learners. Catch up on past installments here.

Hallo zusammen! I’m Stefanie Schantl, and I'm a linguist working on Duolingo's German course—but you may also know me from posts about unique German words, colorful German idioms, and language predictions. This is my first Dear Duolingo column, and I'm excited to pull from another area of expertise: the internal structure of words. It's surprisingly complex when we compare languages from around the world!

Our question this week:

Illustration of a postcard with a large stamp of Duo the owl carrying a letter in his beak. The postcard text reads: Dear Duolingo, I'm learning Spanish, and I love how you can add -ito to words to make them cute! Do other languages do this, too? Thanks, Little by Little

There's a lot to say about words for little things! The short answer is yes, languages all have ways to form diminutives—words that show something is small or sweet, or to show affection towards the word—but what words are eligible to be diminutives and how diminutives work can look really different.

Here are the languages we'll cover!

Examples of languages that use endings to form diminutives:

Examples of language with other strategies for diminutives:

What are diminutives?

There are two main reasons for adjusting a word in a way that makes it sound more cute or playful: to show smallness or to express endearment. In English, we might call a tiny fish fishie, while someone calling their mom Mommy is showing their affection towards her—instead of telling us anything about her size.

In many languages, diminutives are formed by adding a little something called a suffix to the end of a word. In English, the suffix is the sound "ee" (or /i/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet), which is typically written as "ie" or "y." (Because of English spelling rules, sometimes extra letters are written as well, so dog becomes doggie.) Spanish, on the other hand, clips the o from perro (dog) and adds -ito to give us perrito. German takes Hund, changes the u (IPA: ʊ) into umlaut ü (IPA: /ʏ/) and adds -chen, turning it into Hündchen.

Language Base form Ending Diminutive
English dog -ie/-y doggie
Spanish perro -ito perrito
German Hund -chen Hündchen

While English adds -ie or -y to some nouns, there are many nouns we wouldn’t turn into a diminutive at all. We don’t usually call a small house a housie or a year a yeary if we want them to sound cutesy and small. But some languages do! Italian casa (house) becomes casetta and Spanish año (year) becomes añito. Famously, Spanish can even make a diminutive out of ahora (now), leading to many possible interpretations!

Let's take an even closer look at the complexities of diminutives in Spanish and German. 👀

The diminutive in Spanish

The most common diminutive ending in Spanish is -ito for masculine nouns and -ita for feminine nouns.

Base form Stem Ending Diminutive
niño (boy) niñ- -ito niñito (small boy)
niña (girl) niñ- -ita niñita (small girl)

Spanish can also add -ito/-ita to words other than nouns. In this way, pequeño and pequeña (small) become pequeñito and pequeñita (tiny). Sometimes, the diminutive suffix can even be doubled—so the longer the word, the smaller the thing it refers to.

Base form Stem Ending 1 Ending 2 Diminutive
poco (little, few) poc- -it- -ito/-ita poquitito / poquitita (teeny bit)

By now, you have probably noticed that Spanish diminutives always show the grammatical gender of the word. This is true even when the non-diminutive word doesn’t show it with an -o or -a ending:

Base form Ending Diminutive
el árbol (the tree) -ito el arbolito (the small tree)
el café (the coffee) -cito el cafecito (the small coffee)
la mano (the hand) -ita la manita (the small hand) /
la manito (the small hand)

There's variation across speakers and Spanish dialects when it comes to complicated cases like la mano: Some people use la manita, and others say la manito. (And there are some other complexities I have to skip for now—let us know if you're interested in learning more!)

The diminutive in German

German nouns most commonly add -chen or -lein to form diminutives, and both endings turn the grammatical gender of any noun into neuter! Additionally, the stem-vowels a, o, and u (IPA: /aː/, /oː/, and /uː/) often change to their umlaut counterparts ä, ö, and ü (IPA: /ɛː/, /øː/, and /yː/). 

So, der Bub (the boy, masculine) becomes das Bübchen (the small boy, now grammatically neuter) and die Zunge (the tongue, feminine) becomes das Zünglein (the small tongue, neuter). For nouns that were already grammatically neuter to begin with, the article remains the same, as in the case of das Brot (the bread, neuter) → das Brötchen (the bread roll, neuter).

This diminutive ending, and the change to neuter, is the reason why the German word for "girl," Mädchen, is grammatically neuter. It originated as the diminutive for Magd, which meant "maid" or "young girl"... and that diminutive, now with neuter gender, became the standard word!

The diminutive in Chinese

Similar to Spanish and German, Chinese sometimes adds a li'l bit to turn words into diminutives–but Chinese uses a prefix rather than suffix. 

Placing the character (xiǎo, little) before a noun like cat 猫 (māo) turns it into 小猫 (xiǎo māo), meaning "kitten" or "kitty." 

More commonly, though, Chinese doubles nouns, in a process called reduplication. For example, 狗 (gǒu, "dog") becomes 狗狗  (gǒugōu, "doggie") and 鱼 (, "fish") becomes 鱼鱼 (yúyú, "fishie"). Sometimes, the two strategies can even be combined! When put together, 狗 (gǒu, "dog") becomes 小狗狗 (xiǎo gǒugōu, "little doggie")! 🐶

The diminutive in Arabic

Instead of using suffixes or reduplication, Arabic modifies words in a multi-step process that takes the core root consonants of a word and adds sounds between them! This process happens in three steps:

  1. Identify the number of root consonants in a word.
  2. Choose the diminutive pattern. There's one pattern for words with three root consonants and another if there are four root consonants.
  3. Apply the pattern to the original word. 

The two different patterns can be written like a formula, with "C" standing for the root consonants and the new vowels for the diminutive written in between them. For example, for words with three root consonants, the diminutive pattern is C1uC2ayC3, which means: Make the first root consonant the first sound of the word, then add a "u," then add the second root consonant, then add "ay," and end the word with the third root consonant.

Here's how it looks in action:

Base form Root consonants # of root consonants Pattern Diminutive
بيت (bayt, house) B-Y-T 3 C1uC2ayC3 بُيَيْت (buyayt, little house)
عُصْفُور (ʿuṣfūr, bird) '-Ṣ-F-R 4 C1uC2ayC3iC4 عُصَيْفِير (ʿuayfīr, little bird)

The diminutive in Norwegian

Norwegian is related to both English and German, but unlike these two languages, it doesn't add a suffix to create a diminutive. Instead, Norwegian adds an adjective like mini (mini) or lille (little) to create compound words. That way, we get lillegutt (little boy) and minihus (tiny house). Notice that English uses mini- the same way, for example in minibus or miniseries!

Just a li'l complicated

While languages do differ quite a bit in *how* they form diminutives, they all have the ability to express this specific quality. Whether it’s through a suffix, reduplication, or modification of the entire word or compounding––languages always manage to find the right Wörtchen (little word) 😉

For more answers to your littlest language questions, get in touch with us by emailing dearduolingo@duolingo.com.