Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Dutch Obsession with Diminutives

The Dutch are statistically the tallest people on earth. Not only are they tall, but every time I travel to Holland, they seem to have grown taller. Whatever feeling of confidence and superiority my above-average height might give me in the US, it evaporates the moment I arrive at Schiphol airport, and start to navigate my way through a sea of giants. It's hard to get used to feeling 'short', even if it's just for a week or so.

You would expect this propensity for height to spill over in the way the Dutch speak, with bombastic, aggrandizing words and phrases. But it's just the opposite. The Dutch are extremely fond of diminutives. They add the suffix '-je' or '-tje' to practically any part of speech. When I visit my friend Edith in Baarn, we often go for a 'fiets tochtje', a little bike ride (even though they might take up to three hours). We'll stop on the way for a 'kopje coffee met een gebakje', a little cup of coffee with a little desert. On our way back, we'll go into town and buy a 'jurkje', a little dress or hunt for a 'koopje', a little bargain. It's all little this and little that in Holland.

But adding the -je or -tje to a word doesn't just make it small, it makes it also innocent and harmless. Holland is the only country where smoking a 'sigaretje' is less harmful to the lungs than smoking a 'sigaret'. When my mother's nurse has to give her an injection, she calls it 'een prikje' (a little injection). She helps her put on her 'sokjes' (little socks), serves her a 'hapje' (a little bite) before she takes a 'dutje' (a little nap).

The Dutch diminutive also has the effect of trivializing an event by making it seem less important, less threatening. If our house were on fire, my Dutch husband would insist that it's only a 'vuurtje', a little fire and that there is no need to panic. The most horrible acts can be trivialized by adding this suffix. There is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence: 'Ik ga even een moordje plegen' (I'll just go out and commit a little murder).

You would think that using double or even triple diminutives puts a strain on any language's respectability, but it is quite common in Dutch to say 'een heel klein huisje (a very little housie). Some Dutch words don't even have a normal sized version. A 'meisje' is a girl, but 'meis' doesn't exist and calling someone the root word 'meid', which means 'broad', would not be appreciated.

Is it a coincidence that a nation of tall, stoic, serious minded Nordics have found a way to 'minimize' the harsher side of our existence? Is it to show who is the boss in this valley of tears? Or do the Dutch use diminutives to such an extent because they can, because their language allows them to do it so easily? English has diminutive suffixes, like -let, -kin and -y, (as in piglet, pumpkin and daddy), all of which by the way, are borrowed from other Germanic languages. But you cannot just paste them onto words. There are rules. You cannot have a dadkin or a pumplet. Besides, English is too 'business minded', too 'action oriented' to be bothered with all that fancy schmancy stuff. You want to say that something is small, then just add the word 'little' and be done with it.

But when it comes to expressing the essence of the world of small creatures, the Dutch use of the diminutive is completely justified. The word for robin is 'Roodborstje', which literally means 'little red breast'. It conjures up the image of a small, delicate creature. Replace it with the word 'Roodborst' and it makes you think of an aggressive knight in armor. All the charm is gone. The Dutch use the diminutives 'mannetje' en 'vrouwtje' for male and female birds. Isn't that what they are? Small?

So why don't the tallest people in the world use augmentatives instead of diminutives to match their size? They could say things like: 'I bought a megamansion for a supersum of money and now I am uberhappy.' But they would rather 'buy a cute housie for a little money and be content'.

Another word that the Dutch use in abundance, is the word 'lekker', which in its literal sense means 'tasty' but can be applied to anything under the sun. You can 'lekker wandelen' (take a nice walk), 'lekker kletsen' (chitchat nicely), 'lekker naar de bioscoop' (go to the movies nicely) or 'lekker eten', which means that the act of eating is nice, not the food itself.

And then, there is the all-time favorite, completely non-translatable word 'gezellig'. You can only appreciate the importance of this word if you have lived in Holland. It means friendly, fun, pleasant, cozy. A room can be gezellig, people can be gezellig, even going to visit the Queen can be gezellig.

So you see, the Dutch have it pretty much covered. Whatever the complicated reasons are for the Dutch's affinity to minimize and defang the world, it gives their language and their culture a unique character. Just switching from English to Dutch during my brief visits gives me a fuzzy feeling. It won't match the nasty Dutch weather, but as they say in Holland: 'Ieder kaasje heeft zijn gaatje'. Nothing is perfect. leave comment here