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In many languages, formation of diminutives by adding suffixes is a productive part of the language. Many languages apply a grammatical diminutive to nouns, a few—including Dutch, Italian and Russian for instance—also use it for adjectives.

In English, noun diminutives (mainly in the sense of a smaller version of something) are generally formed by using adjectives. A common exception, among a few others, is the usage of the suffix:

-let:

  • diminutive word-forming element, Middle English, from Old French -elet.

    from which, booklet (n.)

Questions:

  1. Why are diminutives in English not always formed by adding a suffix, like in French for instance?
  2. Why can't a suffix like -let be applied to everday terms like hand or car? For example, handlet, or carlet.

(This related question does not deal with my specific issue.)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Yoichi Oishi Jan 4 '16 at 11:38
  • I think this question is too broad for these reasons. – curiousdannii Jan 5 '16 at 12:01
  • @curiousdannii - in that case you should CV as too broad. – user66974 Jan 5 '16 at 12:09
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    In addition to the suffixes that MariLou A mentions in her excellent survey of options, English has the prefix mini- as in minicar. Perhaps we might flip your question around and ask, Why don't Dutch, Italian, and Russian, for instance, have both diminutive suffixes and diminutive prefixes (if, in fact, they don't)? – Sven Yargs Feb 23 '16 at 4:16
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    @SvenYargs - as far as I know the prefix mini is used both in French and Italian as a diminutive. I don't know about Russian and the other languages. Mini- is sometime preferred to the 'classic diminutive' in expressions like "mini appartamento" (small flat) instead of "appartamentino" which might sound "derogatory". – user66974 Feb 23 '16 at 7:45
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I had better start rolling the ball...

In English the adjective little is often used to describe any small object or person, which means that little can act like a diminutive. For example, in English we'd say:

  1. a little old man (whereas in Italian un vecchio becomes un vecchietto)
  2. a little man (un uomoun ometto)
  3. a little boy (ragazzoragazzino),
  4. a little lady / woman (donnadonnetta)
  5. a little baby/child/toddler (bambinobimbetto)
  6. a little hand (or) a child's hand (manomanina)
  7. a little car (macchinamacchinetta)

According to Diminutives in English, the terms “lady”, “woman”, “man” and “wife” normally refer to adult persons but when little is placed in front, the speaker may be reducing their social status to that of children, implying that their level of intelligence or importance is similar to that of children; as a result the speaker appears superior. If, however, forms such as “little man” or “little lady” are used for small boys or girls, these expressions tend to be complimentary.

In contrast, Italian commonly employs the suffixes -etto/a and ino/a, and very effectively too, I may add. If the OP were to use the suffix -let in any of the above expressions e.g., womanlet, or boylet, native speakers would think it very odd-sounding. They may not even recognize the OP's intended meaning.

Carlet as a diminutive for car, could work, but I imagine many would dismiss it as sounding rather twee and affected. Someone else might look it up in a dictionary, Merriam &Webster for instance, and discover it means a 3-square single-cut file used by combmakers. Frankly, I believe the need to use a diminutive suffix never arose.

In Diminutives in English (2003) by Klaus P. Schneider; Geoffrey Turner argues that the term little makes up for the lack of diminutives in the English language.

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But perhaps in Old English there were suffixes that were used to this end. I don't know, unless I do some research...

... Yes, in Old English there were suffixes that were commonly used to change nouns into diminutive nouns, similar to the French -et, -ette, and the Italian -etto, and -ino. Many of the following terms have become rare or archaic, but some still survive today

Old and Middle English suffixes

-en Used to form the diminutives of certain nouns From Middle English, from Old English -en, from the neuter form of -en

  • chicken (diminutive of coc, cocc)
  • maiden (a girl or an unmarried young woman)
  • kitten (a young cat)

-kin (now archaic) Forming diminutives of nouns. Middle English -kin, -kinne, -kunne, from Old English cynna

  • boykin (a rare word meaning ‘a little boy’)
  • catkin (a little cat)
  • ladykin (a little lady)
  • manikin (a short person)

-le A suffix forming diminutives from other nouns; compare -ling From Middle English -el, from Old English -el, -il ‎(diminutive suffix)

  • dimple (a small depression or indentation in a surface.)
  • dingle (a small, narrow or enclosed, usually wooded valley.)
  • hovel (a poor cottage; a small, mean house; a hut.)
  • nipple (believed to be a diminutive of nib, neb ‎(“tip, point”) nib +‎ -le)
  • nozzle (short tube, usually tapering, forming the vent of a hose or pipe.)

-ling A diminutive modifier of nouns having either the physical sense of "a younger, smaller or inferior version of what is denoted by the original noun" From Middle English -ling, from Old English -ling, from Proto-Germanic * -lingaz

  • darling (dear+ling; someone who is dear to me)
  • daughterling (a young or precious daughter)
  • sonling (a young or precious son)
  • fingerling (‘fingerling potato’=small potato)
  • pigling ( a little or young pig, a piglet)

(Source: Wiktionary)

-ock nouns from nouns, originally with a diminutive sense. From Middle English -ock, from Old English -oc, -uc ‎(diminutive suffix),

  • bittock (a little bit; a small piece) Example: Then I cut the flesh into bittocks...
  • bullock (an archaic term meaning a ‘young bull’)
  • hattock (hat +‎ -ock; a Scottish archaic word for a ‘small hat’)
  • hillock (a small hill)
  • maddock (an obsolete word meaning an earthworm, or a maggot)
  • paddock (diminutive of pad, an archaic word for toad) Example: Paddock calls (Macbeth 1.1.10)
  • whinnock (the smallest pig in a litter, a runt)
  1. Why can't a suffix like -let be applied to everyday terms like hand or car? For example, handlet, or carlet.

The term car is derived from Middle English carre meaning a vehicle with wheels or a ‘[small] cart’. Its diminutive form, which was carete or carette, didn't make it to the 20th century and has become obsolete.

I didn't find a term that meant a ‘small hand’ or a ‘young hand’, although English does have the following terms which contain the suffixes -ling and -le: handling and handle, but their meanings are related to the activity that hands do; how something performs, is treated, manipulated or to the object that involves the use of hands.

We'll just have to make do with “little hand”.

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  • I wasn't surprised to find dozens of instances of little handies in Google Books, showing that we can press an established diminutive into service in novel contexts. It's just not so common as a productive technique in English as in some other languages. My guess is that's partly because English has more words from more different sources than most languages. Consequently we've already got suitable terms in many cases, and more potentially applicable suffixes to choose from, making any neologism less "obvious". – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '16 at 14:40
  • Good catch, but I note that it is in the plural because the singular " handy" means something quite different – Mari-Lou A Jan 5 '16 at 15:13
  • Normally, I'd say that English is extremely flexible, and lends itself to new coinages and portmanteaus, but in the department of diminutives it's definitely lacking. However, the expressions "a little boy", "a little toy", "little shoes" etc. are used every day, so why would English use a suffix? The adjective little has two syllables, small has one, whereas etto and ino have two syllables, "a little toy" or "a small toy" is quicker to say than giocattolino And when you say them quickly the two words can sound like one. – Mari-Lou A Jan 5 '16 at 16:03
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    You're certainly a hard one to please! "Indirect compliment"? I thought my comment was positively gushing praise! :) – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '16 at 19:28
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    Last comment from me too. I didn't feel like I needed to "defend" English on this front (as you say, it can look after itself very well without my help). So mea culpa if my comments give that impression (or should that have been pardonnez-moi or my bad? :) But I probably am influenced by recent complaints on ELL that English is unnecessarily confusing because it often has several words that to a nns all seem to correspond to the same single word in their native language. (As you probly know, I consider true "synonyms" in English to be somewhere between "rare" and "non-existent"). – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '16 at 21:48
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I don't think anyone mentioned an important factor to usage of diminutives. Although they in fact can be diminishing, diminutive forms can also express concern or thoughtfulness, especially in such cases like a parent towards their child, a person towards their pet, etc. Diminutive forms have a certain ring to them, they simply sound better. ie. someone mentioned "kitten" earlier on, imo sounding much better than a "little cat".

To be frank, in my native language (Polish) there are more than just one way to form a dimunitive from one word, making it possible to graduate a level of "diminutivity" - I'll give you "cat" example: kot (regular cat) - kotek (little kat) - koteczek (even smaller baby cat) - kociaczek (baby cat with a certain level of tenderness) - kociątko (even smaller version and even more caressing one). Those were just 4, believe me, that more do exist.

Rules of my language actually allow me to create new, non-existing words, adding further layers of tenderness, which, even though might never exist or have existed, or sound somewhat stupid, will be fully understood by any Polish native. As a non-native speaker please excuse me any mistakes I might have made ;-)

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  • Konrad, you didn't read Mari-Lou's answer closely enough: it expressly covers the use of little as a substitute for the affective suffixes found in other languages. And like your native language, there are further levels of diminutive in English too: it's just that instead of using different suffixes, we use compound adjectival forms like tiny little, itty-bitty and teeny-weeny, which can also incorporate an affective signal. – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Mar 7 at 0:47
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Why are diminutives in English not always formed by adding a suffix, like in French for instance?

To add to the excellent answer by Mari-Lou, there is another reason why diminutives aren't regularly formed by adding a suffix: in English we can also readily create a diminutive form of a noun by adding the combining form mini-.

mini-

combining form

Definition of mini- (Entry 3 of 3)
: smaller or briefer than usual, normal, or standard
- minicourse
- minibus

[from Merriam-Webster]

Etymonline gives the following etymology:

word-forming element meaning "miniature, minor," abstracted from miniature, with sense perhaps influenced by minimum. The vogue for mini- as a prefix in English word coinage dates from c. 1960; minicam for "miniature camera" (1937) is an early use.

I suspect that the combining form mini- is preferable to the suffix -let in forming diminutives of nouns because it flags the semantic variation in advance rather than as an afternote, and the first syllable must be stressed (therefore giving the diminutive a degree of emphasis) compared to the usually unstressed suffix (e.g. in booklet, platelet, starlet, etc). It's certainly the case that using mini- to create a diminutive will be more readily understood than using the suffix let, even if it's unfamiliar - say, mini-answer rather than answerlet. In fact, many such diminutives have become sufficiently familiar for the hyphen to have disappeared:

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