Diminutives (pamazināmie vārdi)

What is a diminutive?

A diminutive is the form of a word which is used to indicate smallness, intimacy, or endearment. For example, in English one can use an -ie or -y ending to make a diminutive, as in doggie, horsie, or kitty. This same ending can also be used with names, as in Susie, Johnny, or Robbie. English has a number of diminutive endings that can be suffixed to a noun (in addition to -ie or -y). For example: -ette, as in diskette or kitchenette, -let, as in piglet or eyelet, -ling, as in duckling or gosling. For more information on diminutives in general, please see the article on Diminutives in Wikipedia.

Latvian Diminutives: Meanings

In Latvian a diminutive typically indicates either (a) small size, (b) endearment, (c) both small size and endearment, or (d) a negative (i.e. pejorative) meaning (which may also imply smallness). Here are some examples:

Meaning Examples
small size galdiņš 'little table', meitenīte 'little girl', caurumiņš 'small hole'
endearment tētiņš 'dear father', bāleliņš 'dear brother'
endearment and/or small size brālītis 'dear little brother', rociņa 'dear little hand'
negative vīrelis 'insignificant little man', prātiņš 'pitiful little mind', šunelis 'poor excuse for a dog'

In addition, one sometimes sees idiomatic meanings with diminutive nouns. One example is mātīte 'female/mother animal', which derives from māte 'mother' (e.g. pīļu mātīte 'female duck' (literally: 'little mother of ducks').

Latvian Diminutives: Forms

Latvian diminutives are formed by adding a suffix to the root of a noun (and, very rarely, to an adjective). The diminutive suffix precedes the gender-marking suffix. For example, the word cepure 'hat' consists of a root (cepur-) and a feminine suffix (-e). The diminutive suffix -īt is added directly to the noun root, and the feminine suffix comes at the end. Thus, the word meaning 'little hat' is cepur-īt-e.

Latvian has several diminutive suffixes; the most commonly-used ones are -iņ, -tiņ, -īt, and -el. Which is used typically depends on the declension class of the noun to which one desires to attach it. Here are some guidelines:

Exceptional Diminutive Forms

However, there are always exceptions. In addition to that group of 2nd declension noun roots ending in en already described above, there are idiosyncratic exceptions that need to be dealt with individually. Here is a list of diminutives with unusual forms; the list is as comprehensive as I can make it:

Declension class Basic noun Meaning Diminutive noun Meaning
1 (masculine) tēv-s father tē-tiņ-š dear father
1 (masculine) degun-s nose degun-tiņ-š little nose
2 (masculine) mēnes-s moon mēnes-tiņ-š dear/little moon
2 (masculine) brīd-is moment, instant brī-tiņ-š short moment
3 (masculine) tirg-u-s market tirdz-iņ-š small market
3 (masculine) liet-u-s rain liet-iņ-š small (amount of) rain
3 (masculine) vid-u-s middle, centre vid-iņ-š small centre
5 (feminine) māt-e mother mām-iņ-a dear mother
6 (feminine) nakt-s night naks-niņ-a dear/short night
6 (feminine) durv-is (plural) door dur-tiņ-as little door
6 (feminine) brokast-is (plural) breakfast brokast-iņ-as small breakfast
6 (feminine) sird-s heart sirs-niņ-a dear/little heart
6 (feminine) plīt-s stove, range plīt-iņ-a little stove
6 (feminine) uzac-s eyebrow uzac-īt-e dear/little eyebrow

Diminutives with -el

In addition to the more "law-abiding" diminutives already described above, there is another diminutive suffix that occurs more rarely, and is less regular in its formation. This is the diminutive suffix -el. Any diminutives formed with this suffix take the 2nd declension endings if the noun is masculine, or the 5th declension endings if the noun is feminine.

However, since the suffix is used rarely, there is no clear pattern as to which nouns will use it. Here are all the examples of this diminutive that I have been able to locate:

Declension class Basic noun Meaning Diminutive with -el Meaning Regular diminutive
1 (masculine) vīr-s man vīr-el-is insignificant little man vīr-iņ-š
2 (masculine) sun-s dog šun-el-is doggy, insignificant/little dog sun-īt-is
2 (masculine) puis-is boy puiš-el-is insignificant/little boy puis-īt-is
4 (feminine) rok-a hand roķ-el-e little hand roc-iņ-a

Here are some interesting points to note about these examples:

Diminutives of Adjectives

Although this usage is rare, it is possible for a few adjectives to have diminutive forms. Here are the examples:

Basic word Meaning Diminutive form Meaning
maz-s small maz-iņ-š very small
lab-s good lab-iņ-š good and nice

Finally, please note that many of the examples and some of the organizing principles were derived from the section on diminutives (4.2.3) in Prof. Jāzeps Lelis' on-line Basic Latvian Course. Many thanks.

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A. Steinbergs

Last revised September 18, 2008