Today we’re going to look at diminutives. But what exactly are they?
Diminutivos Play normal audio Diminutives are usually used to describe an object or a person as small or cute. They can also be used to express affection or pity towards someone/ something. Depending on the tone, they can also be used sarcastically.
We often use diminutives when we refer to children, but adults also use them to express love and tenderness, or simply to give a word a “smaller” connotation.
The diminutive is, in fact, one of the three degrees nouns can have. The other two are: normal (the noun itself) and the augmentative.
Although, grammatically, they are exclusive to nouns, in spoken language, diminutives can be used with adjectives as well, which often happens in informal situations.
Diminutives in English
In the English language, the most common diminutives are formed by adding the prefix mini- or by adding suffixes such as –let, -ling, -ette, and –y/-ie.
- Doggy, mommy, daddy (terms of familiarity and warmth);
- Darling (terms of endearment);
- Booklet, piglet (emphasizing the smallness);
- Miniskirt, minibus (showing that something is smaller or shorter than usual).
Diminutives in Portuguese
In Portuguese, diminutives are used in the same types of context. They play a large role in the Portuguese language by bringing emotion and feeling into words. Almost any noun or adjective can be made “small” by adding the appropriate suffix! That’s why it’s so useful to learn them. Both diminutives and augmentatives can also be employed as an alternative to adverbs such as muito Play slow audio Play normal audio a lot, very or pouco Play slow audio Play normal audio little, few.
In contrast, the English diminutives mentioned above are not really true diminutives because English employs them in a more limited and inconsistent way. For example, it wouldn’t be correct to say “breadlet” to refer to a small piece of bread , whereas pãozinho as a diminutive of pão Play normal audio bread would be perfectly fine in Portuguese.
In other words, diminutives are more common and rule-based in Portuguese. So how do we form them?
-inho / -inha
The most common diminutives are formed by adding the masculine suffix –inho or the feminine suffix –inha. This works for words ending in an unstressed –o or –a.
Replace the -o or -a at the end of the word with –inho or -inha.
Here are some examples:
- gato Play slow audio Play normal audio cat → gatinho Play normal audio kitten, small cute cat
- coitada Play normal audio poor woman(pitiful sense) → coitadinha Play normal audio poor little woman (pitiful sense)
Important note: words that end in -co or -ca use the ‘qu’ spelling in order to keep the ‘k’ sound.
- porco Play normal audio pig → porquinho Play normal audio little pig (and not “porcinho”)
- casca Play normal audio peel, shell → casquinha Play normal audio small peel, small shell (and not “cascinha”)
-zinho / -zinha
Words that end in a stressed vowels, consonant, or diphthong (2 vowels together) usually add –zinho (masculine suffix) or –zinha (feminine suffix).
Add –zinho or -zinha to the end of the word.
- irmã Play slow audio Play normal audio sister → irmãzinha Play normal audio little sister
- mão Play slow audio Play normal audio hand → mãozinha Play normal audio little hand
- dor Play normal audio pain → dorzinha Play normal audio minor pain
- pau Play normal audio stick → pauzinho Play normal audio little stick
Words that end in -e (not stressed), as well as words with endings in –ia, –oa, –ua, –io also use –zinho/zinha:
- rio Play normal audio river → riozinho Play normal audio small river
- praia Play normal audio beach → praiazinha Play normal audio small beach
- estátua Play normal audio statue → estátuazinha Play normal audio small statue
With words that end in –m, you have to replace the ‘m’ with ‘n’ before adding –zinho/zinha:
Important: nouns that don’t change with gender (invariable), do change in the diminutive, and practically all of them use the –zinho/zinha suffix. If you’re also using the plural, and the group has people of both genders, then the masculine is used.
- pirata Play normal audio pirate → piratazinho Play normal audio little pirate (male) & piratazinha Play normal audio little pirate (female)
- atleta Play normal audio athlete → atletazinho Play normal audio small athlete (male) & atletazinha Play normal audio small athlete (female)
When To Use Diminutives
So, in which contexts do we use diminutives?
To emphasize small size:
- pão Play normal audio loaf of bread → pãozinho Play normal audio roll, small piece of bread
- casa Play slow audio Play normal audio house → casinha Play normal audio small house
- uma cerveja Play normal audio a beer → uma cervejinha Play normal audio a small beer
To show affection or pity:
- meu anjo Play normal audio my angel → meu anjinho Play normal audio my little angel
- a minha mãe Play normal audio my mother → a minha mãezinha Play normal audio my dear mother
- coitado Play normal audio poor thing → coitadinho Play normal audio poor little thing
To lessen the importance of something:
- Ele tem uma gripezinha Play normal audio He has a little flu
- Tenho uma dorzinha de cabeça Play normal audio I have a minor headache
- É um hotelzinho feio Play normal audio It’s an ugly little hotel
To be sarcastic:
- Nós temos um probleminha... Play normal audio We have a little problem... (implying it's actually a huge problem)
- És tão engraçadinha! Play normal audio You're so funny! (female, sing.)
The diminutive also works for people’s names:
- Pedro Play normal audio → Pedrinho Play normal audio
- João Play normal audio → Joãozinho Play normal audio
- Maria Play normal audio → Mariazinha Play normal audio
- Rui Play normal audio → Ruizinho Play normal audio
These often become nicknames, showing a degree of love and affection for the person. ❤️
For General Emphasis
There are certain situations in which the diminutive can be used to emphasize words rather than lessen or downplay them. Words such as tudinho – from tudo Play normal audio everything – and nadinha– from nada Play slow audio Play normal audio nothing – are two examples.
If someone says Vais comer tudinho Play normal audio You'll eat everything what they imply is “you will eat absolutely everything”. Likewise, if a person says Não vou fazer nadinha hoje Play normal audio I'll be doing nothing today, they mean something like “I will be as lazy as humanly possible”.
The same is true for the word fartinho. Instead of saying Estou muito farto de ficar em casa Play normal audio I'm really tired of being at home, we can use the diminutive (and not augmentative) to say Estou fartinho de estar em casa Play normal audio I'm really tired of being at home. Despite being a diminutive, this means that fartinho actually has a “bigger” meaning than farto.
When NOT to Use Diminutives
Well, it’s not easy as a non-native speaker, because there aren’t any set rules. But let’s just say that diminutives don’t always mean what you think they’re going to mean! It takes time and exposure to the language to get comfortable with the different uses.
Check out this video to see what we mean! 🙈 Don’t Make This Mistake With Diminutives!
Many words can have two different diminutives: one that follows the ‘rules’ we’ve shown and other that’s formed by adding an alternative, less common suffix. Other words, however, have just one diminutive that uses one of those alternative suffixes. Some of these diminutives eventually became actual nouns (i.e. with a place in the dictionary) while retaining the same meaning as “small word”. Some of them are:
diabo Play normal audio devil → diabrete Play normal audio little devil
pequeno Play slow audio Play normal audio small → pequenito Play normal audio really small
bandeira Play normal audio flag → bandeirola Play normal audio small flag
boca Play normal audio mouth → boquita Play normal audio tiny mouth
casa Play slow audio Play normal audio house → casita Play normal audio small house
estátua Play normal audio statue → estatueta Play normal audio small statue
livrobook → livrete Play normal audio small book
rua Play slow audio Play normal audio street → ruela Play normal audio little street
rio Play normal audio river → riacho Play normal audio small river
We use diminutives in Portuguese because they sound friendly, gentle, and informal. Learning how to use them can feel quite awkward at first, but with some practice, you will be able to use them frequently in your speaking. Later, we’ll learn about their opposites: augmentatives!