German isn’t thought of as being one of the sweeter, softer sounding languages. However that doesn’t mean that German speakers don’t have a softer side. In fact, the language has special ways of making certain words sound cuter, smaller and just lovelier. This is known as the diminutive in German.
German speakers really are a loveable bunch, and once you learn about the German diminutive form, you’ll start hearing and seeing it being used a lot.
After reading this post you will know:
- What the German diminutive is and how it’s used
- How to add -chen to a noun to create a diminutive
- Noun gender and plural rules for diminutives
What is the German Diminutive?
Put simply, the diminutive form in German is most often the addition of a suffix to the end of a verb. The most common diminutive suffix is -chen, but you’ll also notice -i, and possibly the now lesser used -lein.
The purpose of this is to make the noun sound either smaller or cuter. Depending on the context, it may be done from a position of affection. For example your Freund or Freundin may use the diminutive form to create new cute versions of words that you’d never use with other people.
It’s a bit like how we add the suffix -let in English to make something smaller: pig = piglet, book = booklet etc.
Forming the German Diminutive: -chen
The suffix -chen is the most common diminutive form you’ll encounter. It’s often used to create a smaller version of the base noun. Let’s take a look at some examples:
You may have noticed that adding the suffix -chen isn’t the only thing we need to do to create a diminutive. If the stem verb has a vowel that can take an umlaut (a, o or u) then it usually gets an umlaut (ä, ö or ü).
|small bread roll|
In some cases the stem verb also loses its ending as seen with Katze and Kanne.
There are a number of nouns which permanently have the suffix -chen which are words in their own right with the suffix never being removed:
|a bit (a small amount of something)|
Diminutive Noun Genders: Why do we say ‘das Mädchen‘?
The great thing about the diminutive suffix -chen, is it makes learning noun genders a lot easier: any noun ending -chen is a neuter noun, so uses the definite article das and indefinite article ein (regardless of what gender the original stem noun was).
This is why das Mädchen seems to be the odd one out when you first start learning German, since people nouns normally takes the gender you would expect:
- der Mann = the man (masculine noun)
- die Frau = the woman (feminine noun)
- der Junge = the boy (masculine noun)
And then we have das Mädchen = the girl (neuter noun).
Mädchen is a noun that evolved from the old German word for maiden, which some point had the diminutive added, so we ended up with Mädchen.
Important note: Not every noun ending -chen is a diminutive, so watch out for them. There are many German words which look like they have the ending -chen but actually the ending would just be -en. It’s pure co-incidence that the -en has a ‘ch’ in front of it.
Because of this, these nouns don’t follow the neuter gender rule, they could be any gender.
das Lachen = the smile
der Kuchen = the cake
der Drachen = the dragon
Creating Plurals with -chen
Some more good news about this suffix is that plurals are really easy to create. Nothing changes about the noun when it becomes a plural. The only thing we change is the article to show we’re talking about more than one or something:
|das Mädchen||the girl||die Mädchen||the girls|
|das Brötchen||the bread roll||die Brötchen||the bread rolls|
|das Kätzchen||the kitten||die Kätzchen||the kittens|
Other Ways to Form the German Diminutive
While using the suffix -chen is by far the most common method, there are a few other ways of forming a diminutive that are worth mentioning.
The suffix -lein is considered old fashioned nowadays and is rarely heard. You may have heard of the word Fraulein which was used to describe a young woman. It was often used to call over a young waitress in a restaurant (a bit like saying ‘miss’), but it would likely be offensive now.
Another way to create a diminutive is to simply add an -i to the end of a word. This is more often used between people in a relationship and close friends than it is in general.
One exception to this is tschüß (goodbye) which is often changed to tschüßi which I hear the staff saying quite often when I’m sitting in cafés.
You can pretty much add -i to any noun to make it sound sweeter: Maus = Mausi for example. And often peoples names may get diminutised with a -i as well: Stefanie = Steffi, Max = Maxi etc.