Laan van Nieuw Oost-Indië 275, The Hague, The Netherlands +31(0)70 365 46 77

Word of the Day: verkleinwoord (diminutive)

Why do the Dutch love to put smallness into so many words? That is the question I raised over the last couple of days when I focused on diminutives, VERKLEINWOORDEN. What do you think? Please let us know. The previous couple of days there were several reactions to my question. I’ll try to sum them up here.


1. Paul and Simin’s hypothesis. Words ending in ‘-je’ are always ‘het-words’ (nouns that take the article ‘het’). So if someone is in doubt whether to use ‘de’ or ‘het’, a diminutive is the easy way out.

Example: Waar zijn het RAPPORTJE en het MAPJE? (Where are the report and the folder?)

2. Aruna says that it is funny to read about diminutives in the language of people known to be big and tall. In other words: tall people living in a small country probably like to poke fun at themselves and put things into perspective.

Example: In 1986 schaatste ik met Willem-Alexander de elfstedentocht… Ja, ja dat was me het TOCHTJE wel. Best een KLUSJE. (In 1986 I and W.-A. skated the 11-city skating marathon in Friesland… Quite a marathon, a tall order…)

3. Jules and Christine said that the Dutch are merchants at heart. They cannot afford to make enemies or start fights, so they use a lot of words that tone down the harshness of trade or sound endearing. Diminutives are endearments.

Example: Dit product is echt een KOOPJE. (This article is a real bargain.)

4. Edith wrote that she uses ’-je’ to indicate the difference between cousin and nephew: ‘My cousin is always MIJN NEEF, but my nephews are nearly always MIJN NEEFJES, even though some of them draw near their forties’.

5. My own hypothesis: because Dutch is such a monotonous language we need suffixes and infixes to give emotional shades of meanings to the words. Diminutives can be used to show affection, disgust, appreciation, irony, etcetera.

Example of affectionate use: Maya is zo’n lief KINDJE; o die OOGJES en HANDJES, zo schattig! (Maya is such a lovely child; o those eyes and hands, so cute!)

Example of disgust: Wat een BURGERMANNETJE is hij toch… (How bourgeois he is…)

Example of appreciation: Wat een mooi HUISJE heb jij gekocht. ( What a lovely villa you bought.)

Example of irony: Hij kon niet meer lopen omdat hij een DRUPJE teveel had gedronken. (He could not walk anymore because he had drunk a drop too much…)

6. The Dutch are all poets at heart. They are so fond of the language that they cannot stop their creativity. They like to play around with words. In other languages diminutives are strictly bound by rules. The anarchist Dutch break every possible rule. This goes especially for the VERKLEINWOORDEN. The Dutch can make a VERKLEINWOORD out of any word, or, so it seems:
nouns (KOP -> KOPJE);
prepositions (UIT -> UITJE, outing);
adjectives (BLOND -> BLONDJE, blonde);
names (PIET -> PIETJE but FRANS is a man and FRANSJE a woman);
numerals (EEN -> EENTJE, alone);
and even verbs (WEET -> WEETJE, fact);
and pronouns (DITJES EN DATJES, bits and pieces).

Last but not least… Some words that end in ‘-je’ do not even have a ‘-je’ less form anymore. Remember DUTJE (nap) and BEETJE (bit) from previous posts. Well there is no DUT anymore, nor is there a BEET in the same nondiminutive sense. The same goes for the lovely word SPROOKJE, fairy tale. Originally the word derived from medieval forms of SPREKEN (speak) and SPREUK (saying), but a SPROOK does not exist in Dutch anymore.

Do you know the fairy tale of the ugly duckling by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen from 1843? Yes, in Dutch the title is HET SPROOKJE VAN HET LELIJKE EENDJE. Het EENDJE, of course did not turn out to be a duck, een EEND, but a ZWAAN, a swan. HET EENDJE was EEN ZWAANTJE.