Polish Language Blog

When Polish Diminutives Aren’t Diminutive Posted by on Mar 24, 2009 in Grammar, Vocabulary

This is odd, but during the last two weeks two different readers, in two different countries, in two different ways mentioned the issue of Polish diminutives. So, who am I to argue with such a coincidence? And because I don’t want any bad karma hanging over my head (those “sexist” occupation nouns can wait), we shall start on the subject of diminutive forms today. We will only start, because, honestly, thick volumes were written on this subject.

Polish seems to be THE language for diminutives. And I’m not talking here only about first names, like for example mine (and by the way, see how many variants you can create from “Anna”), but normal everyday nouns. And adjectives. And adverbs. And other assorted parts of speech. I’ve even heard verbs beaten into submission and mangled into zdrobnienia (singular: zdrobnienie).

But not all diminutives are what they appear on the surface.

Take the word “śmietana,” for example. Its diminutive form is “śmietanka“. Almost all dictionaries translate both words simply as “cream.” But hey, it just wouldn’t be Polish, if it were THAT simple, now would it?

For most Polish speakers and dairy manufacturers, “śmietana” signifies sour cream. If you add “bita” in front of it, then you have “bita śmietana” which is definitely not sour, but whipped cream. And “śmietanka” normally refers to the stuff you pour into your coffee. If you were trying to use śmietana instead, you could be in for a rude surprise – few people I know like their coffee with sour cream.

So yeah, technically, śmietanka is a diminutive form of śmietana, but somewhere along the way they’ve evolved to mean different things.

Another one of those “fake” diminutives is “sałata” and “sałatka”:

  • sałata – lettuce,
  • sałatka – salad.

And then there’s “chusta”. And “chustka”. And “chusteczka”.

  • Chusta” is what babushki wear on their heads. It can also mean “hijab”.
  • Chustka” would be what a fashionable lady wears around her neck as an accessory.
  • And “chusteczka” especially when followed by “higieniczna” is what you blow your nose into.

There is some overlap in meaning between the last two words, but mostly when spoken by older people.

These are just a few examples to show you that not all diminutives are what they appear to be. In our next installment, we will tackle diminutive versions of names. So yeah, just how many different ways can you say “Anna” anyway?

PS. I even found photos of packages of both śmietana and śmietanka, but due to technical difficulties with uploading pictures, I will have to add them at a later date

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  1. Basia Lomnicka:

    ok, I’m game, although I will probably only scratch the surface:

    Anna: Ania, Anusia, Aniula, Anulka, Anka, Aneczka,
    Hania? Hanka? (remember my mom calling a little girl by Hanka)

    Any more, and I will probably die of “sugar” overload. 🙂

  2. lida:

    another good example is
    prosze please
    prosie little pig
    which has a slight difference in pronounce

  3. russ:

    I had a Polish teacher who said she and some other Poles are sometimes frustrated or embarrassed by the Polish obsession with cute diminutives, as if the language is degenerating into baby talk.

    Indeed it seems very odd to me as a learner when grown adults are always offering each other “herbatka” instead of “herbata”, etc, or when in a supposedly serious business context, people talk about a “rachuneczek” instead of “rachunek”, etc. It’s funny to me that I know Poles who hate this baby-talk, yet catch themselves doing it also by habit, since it’s so ingrained in the language/culture.

    Diminutivizing a word that’s ALREADY diminutive (e.g. “chusteczka” etc) is also kind of… odd! It’s like, “Hey, let’s make it even MORE cute!” 🙂

  4. Lori:

    When I first took some Polish language classes, the instructor warned us that in Polish everything is a diminutive even a table! So from the beginning I expected this

  5. thomas westcott:

    I did not have that warning. That sounds like good advice now.
    However In the past I have tryed to listen to Polish cds and cassets. The music is very catchy – one could dance to it. More disco like. Several of the tapes are of children singing. I have attended church were the songs and sermon were in Polish. I have listened to the Polish radio station in Chicago. I was listening for words that I could identify. I was also trying to get a sense of the patterns of the language.
    Unfortunately I only made a match for the complete sound. The diminutive sounds different therefore to me it is a different word.
    With so much spoken Polish in the diminutive no wonder that I have not be able to follow Polish conversations. The vocabulary that I have been learning is mostly all wrong compared to what I was hearing.

    I think that as I learn more vocabulary that I will need to learn as many of the different forms for each word at the same time as i learn the basic word.

    Another observation about diminutives since they are spelled differently is that they are not always shorter words (number of letters used in spelling the word) 🙂