The Dutch Diminutives: Why is everything so small in Dutch?

Mar 8, 2023

You have probably ordered a “biertje” in a café in the Netherlands before. Did you know that this word is actually a diminutive (implying smallness) form of the word “bier”, but in this context, it doesn’t actually mean that you ordered a small glass of beer. You also possess “een mobieltje”, which also doesn’t mean that your mobile phone is particularly small. In fact, the Dutch diminutive form of a noun is used to express a variety of sentiments including (but not limited to) smallness, affection, endearment, or lack of importance.


What are the diminutives?

Diminutives are nouns ending in a suffix, with the most common Dutch diminutive suffixes being “-je”, “-tje” and “-pje”. It’s important to remember to always use the article “het” in singular with diminutives!

Many languages use diminutives, even English with -ette (cigar -> cigarette) or -y/-ie (dog -> doggy).


When do I use Dutch diminutives?

The main usage of diminutives is to show that something or someone is small (or smaller than is typical). The diminutive implies the adjective of ‘little’ or ‘small’. For example: “Mijn zusje heeft een rood fietsje”: My (little) sister has a (little) red bike.

But when you say “schatje” (darling) to your partner, this expresses your love for them, not their size or the size of your love! In general the Dutch use diminutives a lot for things which are lovely or pleasant such as: “een terrasje” (a terrace), “lekker weertje” (nice weather), “feestje” (party), “een lekker kopje koffie” (a nice cup of tea) and “een weekendje weg” (a weekend trip).

However, we can also use a diminutive to diminish something’s importance. For example: “een foutje” (a [small] mistake) sounds less serious than when you made “een fout” (a mistake). And when you are just “een paar minuutjes te laat” (a few [little] minutes late), it sounds less consequential than “een paar minuten” (a few minutes late). And when somebody has “a buikje”(a [little] belly), it sounds nicer than saying somebody is fat.

Finally, not all diminutives have a positive connotation. Some diminutives such as “oudjes” (old people), “studentje”(student) or “dom blondje” (dumb blonde woman) are used to express contempt or dislike and give someone a lower status.


Why should I use Dutch diminutives?

The Dutch use of diminutives is an important part of the language. Their usage adds nuance to communication. The diminutive form can also be used in a variety of contexts; you can make this subtle change to many different words and it will have a variety of meanings to those who understand. It’s an easy way to add richness to your descriptions in Dutch!

Mastering diminutive formation and usage is an important step in learning the Dutch language. However, be careful not to overuse this diminutive form or you might sound like you are talking to a little child (“een kindje”)! 


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