Estonians use diminutives little, but creatively

Liivak identified nine pragmatic functions for diminutives in Estonian, despite the fact that Estonians do not use diminutives commonly.
Liivak identified nine pragmatic functions for diminutives in Estonian, despite the fact that Estonians do not use diminutives commonly. Source: Marc Wathieu/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Diminutives are rarely used in the Estonian language and only in specific conversational contexts, such as giving negative evaluations, conveying uncomfortable information and uncertainty, or in common idiomatic expressions, according to a research conducted at the University of Tartu.

A diminutive is often derived by changing a root word in some way to convey a lesser degree of its initial meaning: either to convey the diminutive nature of the named object or quality, or to convey an intimate or endearing approach to it.

In many languages, diminutives are formed from the root term by affixation, as is the case in Estonian, e.g., the diminutive form of the noun "box" (kast → kastike). In the English language, examples would be "droplet," which is a small drop, or "bluey," which means nearly blue.

In some languages even a double diminutive by affixation could be constructed, such as for the Polish word "bell" (dzwon → dzwonek → dzwoneczek) or the Italian word "home" (casa → casetta → casettina). Moreover, some languages, including Estonian, apply a grammatical diminutive not only to nouns but also to adjectives and other parts of speech.

While in English a change in meaning is often conveyed through trimming of the word that shortens and makes it more colloquial (kitten - kitty), in most of other languages, including Estonian, the addition of affixes makes these words longer and not always as colloquial.*

What is special about how Estonians use diminutives?

It is a known fact that diminutives are used relatively little in Estonian, certainly less than in Slavic and Baltic languages. Moreover, because they are diminutive words, they are often used exactly as that in Estonian: to express the physical smallness or insignificance of something.

However, when a mother refers to her adult child using a diminutive form of the noun "child" (laps → lapsekene), or when someone refers to another person using a diminutive derived from the adjective "poor" (vaene → vaeseke), the intention of the speaker is not to convey the interlocutor's smallness or diminutiveness, but rather an affectionate attitude to them.

So also in the Estonian language diminutives can also be used to express numerous pragmatic functions, Mirjam Liivak, a graduate of the University of Tartu in Estonian and Finno-Ugric Linguistics, explained. It is reasonable to assume that a mother who uses a diminutive to refer to her adult child is expressing compassion, and that the speaker feels pity for his or her interlocutor when using a diminutive of "poor."

But in which other communicative and pragmatic situations do Estonian diminutives occur? As oral conversations precisely reflect the language use of people in their everyday lives, Liivak went on to explain, she chose real-life transcripts as her research material. "I analyzed the conversation transcripts extracted from the University of Tartu's collection of oral conversations. In these transcripts, acquaintances, family members, and coworkers conversed about a variety of topics," she said.

A negative evaluation using diminutives

Liivak first determined that the use of diminutives in Estonian is indeed minimal. By the beginning of 2023, approximately 26 years after the compilation of oral speech began in 1997, only 199 conversation fragments containing diminutives were discovered. Despite their low frequency, the researcher was able to identify nine pragmatic functions in which diminutives were used.

Analysis of the research data showed that the most frequently used diminutives to express positive evaluation used the affixes -ke and -kene. Such instances include the lapsekene example mentioned above.

The diminutive was also used quite often to convey negative evaluations. For instance, when referring to life partners who had been poisoned by alcohol using the diminutive form of the noun "couple" (paar → pairike) in a rather derogatory manner. Instances of irony are also included among the negative contexts. One traveler's report of their trip to Samarkand includes the comment that the city is governed by a fathers cult (isakeste kultus), using a diminutive form of the noun "farther" (isa → isakene).

Diminutive as a cushion for discomfort and uncertainty

There are often situations in conversations where we feel that we can make our conversation partner(s) uncomfortable, or where we want to show that something is trivial or inadequate. In such cases, we try to mitigate any inconvenience and reduce the inadequate or negligible. In these cases diminutives were used, as expected, to express the smallness of something.

For example, there was a diminutive in a snippet of a conversation between a person working at a university and a worker from a ventilation installation company. The university employee, anticipating that the worker was about to start drilling, asked if they are about to start banging. The contractor must have interpreted the question as a worry, because he responded that he intended to drill a couple of tiny holes, using the diminutive form of "hole" (auk → augukene!) in the ceiling so that the pipe could be installed.

The purpose of using a diminutive here was to minimize any possible inconvenience, as drilling is noisy and troublesome, especially when you need to concentrate on something else at the same time.

There were also diminutives in quips, such as when the speaker wished to emphasize a point and make it memorable. In one of the interviews, when one partner said to another that she was eating too much and asked who was going to carry her stomach, she replied that she would carry it herself as it was so slim (kõhuke on nii õhuke), making a catchy phrase by rhyming the diminutive form of stomach (kõht → kõhuke) and slim (õhuke).

There were also diminutives in the interview transcripts, indicating that the interviewee was uncertain about a particular aspect, such as the duration of something, or had trouble describing a feature. For example, in order to redefine the duration of time, the diminutive of the noun "week" was used to indicate that the period in question could be slightly less than a week, exactly a week, or more than a week.

Bolder use of diminutives

In many situations diminutive idiomatic expressions were used as well, often with a religious connotation as in using the diminutive forms of "father," "god," and "sacred cross" (isa → issakene, jamal → jumalukene, rist → ristikene, respectively). Such expressions were used to intensify speakers' astonishment, annoyance or regret.

Every topic of conversation will eventually become exhausted and the conversation will have to stop. How do you indicate that a topic has been covered fully or that it is time to end the conversation? she asked.

Of course, there are many ways to do this, one of which is to use the phrase "well and good" (heakene küll), which uses a diminutive from the adjective "good" (hea → heakene), followed by an indication that by now the topic of conversation has been exhausted or it is time to end the conversation.

So Estonian diminutives even though rarely used can be constructed in a wide range of communicative situations and to express different attitudes.

Liivak has now proposed to study the use of diminutives in institutional or public communication; for example, the use of a diminutive in a question posed by a politician to prime minister: "kust sa, lilleke, siia said?" The politician was derisively calling the prime minister a little flower, an equivalent of buttercup in American English, and the question literally translates, "Where did you come from, buttercup?"

* Editors note


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Editor: Jaan-Juhan Oidermaa, Kristina Kersa

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