That English has no diminutives is a common myth - based on Klaus P. Schneider's book "Diminutives in English"

Seminar Paper, 2005

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Monika Rusek (Author)




1. What are diminutives?
1.1 Formation processes

2. The status of diminutives in English
2.1 The inventory of diminutive suffixes and its subclasses
2.2 Problems in historical variation and productivity

3. Synthetic diminutive formation
3.1 {IE}
3.2 {ETTE}
3.3 {LET}
3.4 {LING}
3.5 Multiple and competing diminutives



Several attempts have been made to analyse diminutives. This essay will provide a morphological approach. Morphology, the study of word-formation was influenced by three main sources in the past and each of these sources has contributed to the study of diminutives. Now, the three sources Bauer (1988: 5) and Schneider (2003: 29) mention are a) the philological grammar or traditional grammar[1], b) the structuralist schools of Linguistics or structuralism[2], and b) the transformational grammar or generative grammar[3]. My analysis will be based on the approach Bauer (1988) made, and additionally on the approach Schneider (2003) made.

This essay focuses on synthetic[4] diminutive formation in English. Questions like what are diminutives, what grammatical approaches have been made to diminutives, what are its formation processes and what is the meaning diminutives convey, are treated in the first section.

The second section deals with some grammatical aspects of English diminutives such as the status of diminutives, the inventory of diminutive suffixation, the subclasses of diminutive suffixes, the historical variation of diminutives and finally their productivity.

In the third section of this essay a close survey of four diminutive suffixes is provided. This survey tries to describe the rules and restrictions that govern diminutive formation. It is based on a pure morphological approach. The suffixes are analysed in detail, partial according to Bauer (1988) and partial according to Schneider (2003: 4.2 – 4.2.6). That means that the phonological shape of the suffix will be given and its different spellings if there are any. In addition, the history of the suffix, its formation rules for creating diminution, and finally its semantics are analysed, too.

Afterwards, the fourth section shortly enters into the peculiarity of multiple and competing diminutives in English, giving the suffixes {KIN}, {POO}, and {POP} as examples. And at the end, I will provide a conclusion of my analysis that also states why an exclusively synthetic approach to diminutives is not sufficient when one wants to get to know the whole truth about English diminutive formation.

1. What are diminutives?

To be able to talk about diminutives, we first have to define the term ‘diminutive’. Schneider says that by tradition, this mentioned term refers to words which denote smallness and which can also express a positive or negative attitude, depending on linguistic and situational aspects in a certain context (4). Furthermore, he states that prototypical diminutives are complex nouns derived from nouns by suffixation (e.g., house + -ie > housie); but that there is also the possibility to use the term ‘diminutive’ to refer to the suffix, which adds the diminutive meaning to the meaning of the base. In other words, a housie is still a house, though a small and nice one (4). Schneider goes on to explain that the meaning of a diminutive form is a solely additive one. He makes up the following traditionally accepted rule: “meaning of the base word + the component(s) [‘small’ (attitude)], expressed through the suffix” (4). Besides, the meaning is “standardly paraphrased by using ‘small X’ constructions”, with X being the base word (Schneider 10, 11). That means that ‘small X’ would represent a small member of the respective category X; e.g. houseen is a small item of the category ‘house’. Consequently, this implies that there is a prototypical norm of a respective category that also includes the notion of prototypical size. Nonetheless, some diminutives also refer to non-adult members of a specific category. This pertains to animals, humans and plants as Schneider said (11); and the examples he offers are manling, duckling and seedling. The second component which is added by diminutive suffixes is the “attitudinal meaning” (Schneider 11) also identified as affective, emotional and emotive. Thus, Schneider concludes that the meaning should be glossed as ‘nice/ sweet + small X’. But as we will see in further analysis this definition will not be adequate.

Moreover, Schneider says that the process of diminutive formation has been classified as modification rather than derivation since word class is retained in the process (4). Thus, the meaning of the base is modified, but remains basically unchanged. All that can undergo real changes, is the graphological and/or phonological shape of the base, e.g. dog > doggie, Elizabeth > Betty. This is an assertion I will return to in my further analysis.

Additionally, it is important to distinguish between the “different levels of analysis” (Schneider 4). These are according to Schneider: diminutive form and diminutive meaning, and as a second group, the processes of diminutive formation and diminutivisation (4). The difference between these two processes is a formal or semantic one. Another term Schneider introduces in his book is ‘diminution’, which he considers a concept expressed by the above mentioned processes; a concept that expresses quantification (aspect of size), qualification (aspect of attitude), modification, gradation, intensification and evaluation (4). However, it should be borne in mind that this concept is a universal concept and not a grammatical one. What we will do now is looking at the processes of diminutive formation.

1.1 Formation processes

Derivational suffixation is the prototypical formation process for diminutives concerning all languages. However, as I have already mentioned diminutive formation in the English language is more complicated. For instance Schneider mentions the morphological type as one possible variety of diminutive formation. Another term for this type is synthetic diminutive formation. This includes prefixation, suffixation and reduplication, compounding and truncation[5]. And examples for these processes are also made available by Schneider. For instance the words mini-cruise, mini-submarine or micro-processor show derivational prefixation, although the latter is restricted to technical terms (7). For reduplication he mentions John-John, goody-goody, for the rhyming reduplication Annie-Pannie or Brinnie-Winnie (8). Diminutive compounding would look like baby tree or dwarf tree (8) and examples for truncation in English diminutive formation are Mike < Michael, Pat > Patricia (9) or the mixed form with the suffix –ie/-y: football > footie and Andrew > Andy (9).

The other second type would be the analytical[6] also called syntactic formation, using little as a diminutive and not as an adjective of size (Schneider 129), e.g. “Have a little cigarette” (Schneider 133). But as we want to focus on Morphology and not on Syntax this second type can’t be discussed in detail but will be referred to briefly in the essay’s conclusion. Therefore, we will go on now to look at some grammatical aspects of English diminutives.

2. The status of diminutives in English

Many researchers such as Jespersen (1948: 9), Wierzbicka (1985b: 166), Turner (1973: 84) who are quoted in Schneider (2003: 75) maintain that the English language has only few diminutives if any. They say 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’ the author wanted to convince us that diminutives are restricted to “child or caretaker speech” (Schneider 40). Nevertheless, we will see that this is not a satisfactory result. In fact, diminutives are always informal; but, this does not mean that only children use diminutives, or that diminutives only appear in nursery speech. The same pertains to the term ‘isolated’. It cannot be ignored that there is a great number of diminutive suffixes which are more productive and which are more often used than commonly assumed. Therefore, the next three sections will provide some important facts concerning diminutives’ quantity, historical variation and productivity.

2.1 The inventory of diminutive suffixes and its subclasses

As I already mentioned, there have been numerous attempts to analyse diminutive suffixes. And as a result, there are as many different views which suffix can be considered a diminutive suffix as there are authors. This is the case as every linguist uses different criteria in determining the ‘real’ diminutive suffixes. Altogether, Schneider lists eighty-six different suffixes[7]. Definitely, such an immense range of diminutives cannot be analysed in a single essay; so, there have to be made some sensible restrictions. These restrictions have to follow the subsequent intentions of my analysis: primarily, my analysis focuses on present-day diminutives; and secondly, it also concentrates on only English diminutives.

Here again, Schneider offers a solution. He explains that there are two unnecessary subclasses, which can be omitted (78). These subclasses are: 1) “diminutive suffixes of other languages, which entered the English language in loan words but never acquired the status of word-formation suffixes in English” (Schneider 78), and 2) “diminutive suffixes [which were] productive at different times in the history of English” but are no more today (Schneider 79). In addition, Schneider proposes to shorten the list of the remaining suffixes due to a purely formal reason. Initially, the “spelling variants of the same suffix can be treated as one suffix” (79). This concerns the following suffixes: -ie, -y, -ey and unstressed –ee […], which all represent the suffix /I/” (Schneider 79). They can be compressed to the suffix {IE}. Then, some suffixes appear in combinations although they also can exist on their own; these are: some combinations of –ie and –kin (Schneider 79). They can be left out, as well. Afterwards, some further extensions of - ie can be omitted, too; e.g.: “-die, -nie, or –ikie” (Schneider 79). Finally, it is also possible to leave out the suffixes: –chick and –sky, which are of Slavic origin and probably no longer used in American English; –et, which is attested until the 1960s and no longer; -ing and –ock, which are found in older publications only, too. The remaining thirteen suffixes are: -a, -een, -er, -ette, -ie, -kin, -le, -let, -ling, -o, -poo, -pop and –s. However, since this is also a quite comprehensive list of suffixes, I will only concentrate on four of the given suffixes. But first let me explain briefly why so many suffixes have become obsolete today.


[1] At that time the use of categories and terminology came into being and linguistic phenomena were examined empirical and from a historical and/or diachronic perspective (Schneider, p.29).

[2]“In structuralism, the emphasis shifted from a historical and diachronic perspective to the synchronic analysis of present-day language […] and the focus was on language as an abstract relational system” (Schneider, p.31). Nevertheless, Marchand (1969) for example analyses about 146 prefixes and suffixes in a synchronic plus diachronic perspective.

[3] It is not interested in the diachronic approach. It explains (not only describes) linguistic phenomena, 2) it focuses on the universals shared by all languages (‘langage’ is looked at), 3) its theories are developed on the basis of fabricated not natural examples, 4) it is interested in the creative characteristic of language (possibilities of forming new words), and 5) it considers morphology no more as a part of syntax but of lexicon (Schneider, p.32, 33).

[4] Forming synthetic diminutives means to attach diminutive suffixes to a base (any item to which affixes are added). This is word-formation by affixation.

[5] Truncation is a subtractive process, sometimes used interchangeably with clipping; but it is a subtype of clipping (“the process of shortening a word without changing its part of speech” (Bauer, 1988: 239)) according to Schneider (p.9).

[6] Analytical formation means that “most word-forms are made up of a single morph” (Bauer, 1988: 246) and that “all modifications of a stem are usually put in front of the stem by means of independent morphemes or words” (Tristram, 2004).

[7] The suffix inventory includes: “-a, -aculus, -chik, -cule, -culus, -die, -ee, -een, -el1, -el2, -ella, -ellus, -em, -en, -eolus, -eon, -er, -erel, -ers, -et, -ette, -ey, -ickie, -icle, -icule, -iculus, -idium, -ie, -ikie, -ikin, -il, -illa, -ille, -illo, -illus, -in, -ina, -incel, -ing, -iolus, -ion, -k, -kie, -kin, -kins, -l, -le, -let, -ling, -lot, -n, -nel, -nie, -no, -o, -ock, -ockie, -ol, -ole, -om, -on, -oon, -ot, -podicum, -poo(h), -pops, -r, -rel, -s, -sie, -sky, -sy, -t, -tie, -to, -ton, -ula1, ula2, -ule, -uleus, -ulous, -ulum, -ulus, -unculus, -usculus, -y” (Schneider 78).

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That English has no diminutives is a common myth - based on Klaus P. Schneider's book "Diminutives in English"
University of Potsdam
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That, English, Klaus, Schneider, English, synthetic diminutive formation, historical variation diminutives, historival variation, diminutive suffixes, suffixes, suffix, productivity, let, ling, ette, ie, multiple diminutives, competing diminutives, productive diminutives, English diminutives, diminutives
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Monika Rusek (Author), 2005, That English has no diminutives is a common myth - based on Klaus P. Schneider's book "Diminutives in English", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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