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Love Me Russian! or a little something about the diminutive [Part I: Introduction] Posted by on Apr 22, 2010 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners, Russian life, when in Russia

In English language the grammatical term diminutive’ translates as a diminutive word or suffix word indicating small size (such as “booklet”, etc.), a shortened form of a name or a name indicating fondness and that it can also be used to describe a very small person or a very small thing. In Russian language this grammatical term translates as «уменьшительно-ласкательная форма существительного» [diminutive from of the noun]. In this noun we can make out two adjectives made from the verbs «уменьшить» [decrease, diminish, abate, reduce] and «ласкать» [caress, fondle, stroke; flatter; pet, cosset]. This means that diminutive in Russian can be used practically in the same way as it is used in English – to express a) that something is small; and/or b) that something is dear to you. Adding to this you’ll have to learn what proper suffixes to use, of course! More to come about this in a moment. First I’ll share with you «анекдот» [an anecdote, short narrative describing an interesting or amusing incident; joke] about how it is not always that easy to tell exactly in which of these two meanings someone – a native speaker of Russian language obviously – is using a particular diminutive. Two years ago I took a class in pedagogy and as a part of it each of us in the group had to give a lecture or a seminar to each other on one of the subjects we’d be teaching in the future. In my group everyone was Russian, except for me and two other girls: «американка» [an American girl] and «монголка» [a Mongolian girl]. The American girl held a seminar on Russian literature for foreigners (despite the apparent deficiency of foreigners in the room) and we were reading a chapter from «Анна Каренина» [“Anna Karenina”] by «Лев Николаевич Толстой» [Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy] together out loud. In this chapter there’s a passage where «Вронский» [Vronsky (not yet at the time Anna’s lover)] looks at Anna and her «рука» [hand] is described by the narrator all of the sudden by the diminutive «ручка». Naturally the ‘teacher’ turned to the classroom and asked us: «Почему [Why?]. I thought that I had it all figured out already, so I raised my hand and suggested: «Потому что у неё маленькие руки по сравнению с руками Вронского» [Because she has small hands in comparison with Vronsky’s hands]. But no! I was wrong. So wrong! And my ‘teacher’ was not pleased with me as I had to be corrected by one of the Russian students: «Потому что её рука ему дорога» [Because her hand is dear to him]. By using the diminutive «ручка» instead of «рука» in this passage Tolstoy is making a subtle, yet notable hint that Vronsky is starting to have feelings for Anna; not necessarily that her hands are small at all. But I’m far from the only foreigner to get this wrong. Sometimes diminutive is used by Russians to describe small things and sometimes things they’re fond of and thus they get us confused a lot of the time. For example, a few weeks ago I was rehearsing the play «Медведь» [“The Bear”] by «Антон Павлович Чехов» [Anton Pavlovich Chekohv] together with a fellow foreign student from China here at the university. In the play the male character also calls the hand of the female character «ручка». But my Chinese partner went against the word of Chekhov and used «рука» instead for as he explained it – my hands are really not that small…

In «Медведь» [“The Bear”] Smirnov says to Popova: «Вы не можете понять, какое счастье умереть от револьвера, который держит эта маленькая бархатная ручка» [lit. “You cannot understand what happiness it is to die from the revolver which is held by this small velvet hand”].

It should also be noted that the noun «ручка» in Russian also means ‘handle; pen’. There is thus a distinctive differentiation between the following two questions:

«Можно я возьму твою ручку?» [Is it okay if I take your pen?]

«Можно я поцелую твою ручку?» [Is it okay if I (or: May I) kiss your hand?]

As an answer to both you will either receive a «да» [yes] or a «нет» [no] but one and the same noun here still means different things.

Now for the different suffixes used in Russian to make an ordinary noun into an emotionally tinted one! There’s a more than a few of those (not to mention that in Russian you can also make diminutive forms of adjectives and adverbs, but more about this in “Part II: Continuation” of this post in two days!) so to save both your and my time I’ll only give you a few examples of words for each of them:

«-ок», «-ик», «-чик»:

«сын»«сынок» [son, sonny (form of address used when speaking to a young boy)].

«стол»«столик» [coffee table, low table used next to tables and couches].

«старик»«старичок» [old man, elderly gentleman].


«брат»«братец» [my boy; old man, old chap].


«дочь»«дочка» [daughter].

«дорога»«дорожка» [path, walkway; track, lane; runway].

«книга»«книжка» [book, booklet]. (You can also take it to the next level of endearment and say «книжечка» instead… but more about this in a future post!)


«лицо»«личико» [small or dear face].

«окно»«окошко» [window; smaller window].

An interesting thing about Russian language is that you can express to someone that they are dear to you – or that you’re fond of them, that you like the person, appreciate the person in general – by using the diminutive for material thing. This applies to official or formal relationships when it in Russia is not custom to make use of the diminutive form of names, when you are «на Вы» with each other. But this doesn’t have to mean that you are cold to each other or not close friends with each other when in formal relationships in Russia. Quite on the contrary! Even when Russians call colleagues at work «по имени и отчеству» [by first name and patronymic] they can change the neutral «стул» [chair] into the emotionally tinted «стульчик» (without meaning a smaller than average chair) to show a warmer feeling for the person:

«Возьмите стульчик и садитесь же, Иван Иванович!» [Take a chair and have a seat, Ivan Ivanovich!]

This can be done with practically any noun there is in Russian language, for example saying instead of «стакан» [glass, cup] «стаканчик» in the following context:

«Не хотите стаканчик чая, Людмила Аркадьевна?» [Don’t you want a cup of tea, Lyudmila Arkad’evna?]

In our next post on this subject we’ll take it even further and explain both how to make adjectives and adverbs into diminutive as well as how you can use diminutive in Russian to also express a NEGATIVE emotion! Now isn’t that something to look forward to?

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  1. Yelena:

    You are absolutely right on this, Josephina – diminutive form is used to express warm feelings, including towards inanimate objects, such as when my friend asks me whether I would like “чаёк с тортиком” [tea with cake].

    Also, about suffixes that form diminutive form: how about -уля? Such as in сынуля [son], крохотуля [little one]. Not to mention that the suffixes can be piled up on top of each other such as in сынУлечка or мамУлечка. The more, the dearer 🙂

  2. Laine:

    Hi, I hope you don’t mind me contacting you through the comments … I am looking for guest bloggers to post on our blog during the Macmillan Dictionary’s celebration of ‘Russian-English’ month in May. I’d love to tell you more. If you are interested, please contact me at the address I have given. Take care, Laine

  3. David:

    Great blog! The use of the diminutive in Russia has so many more nuances than in English. Now I understand why my wife asks me how I like the “bookie” I am reading.

  4. Charly:

    LOL, David – i might be a hint! 😉

    Only after studying Russian (and Russians) myself it became clear to me, why my Russian-speaking friend from Ukraine always had and has this need to use the diminutive forms in German – with the weirdest words (also books, and much more, time of day, food, absolutely standard-sized clothing items etc.).

    It is hard to learn any languages without also studying its speakers, but with Russian I find it nearly impossible. There are so many things that make you wonder when you see them written or hear them said (repeatedly) that make absolutely no sense to you, until you find out more about the cultural background, eating habits, society structures, thinking concepts and whatnot.
    I always love it, if one such seeming paradox finally explains itself. 🙂

  5. Charly:

    correction: What I meant to say in the first line was of course:
    “IT might be a hint.”

  6. Minority:

    I’m sorry, I hope you do not mind if I will correct you?

    >«дочь» – «дочка» [daughter].
    >«дорога» – «дорожка» [path, walkway; track, lane; runway].
    The suffix isn’t “-ка”, it is “-к-“. And the same with next example (“-ко”) – in fact these examples are with the same suffix. “-а”, “-о” in the end are endings. If you would try to decline these words you will see it:
    И.п. Дочка | Окошко
    Р.п. Дочки | Окошка
    Д.п. Дочке | Окошку
    В.п. Дочку | Окошко
    Т.п. Дочкой | Окошком
    П.п. О дочке | Об окошке

    And I think you should mention two things more about dimininutive in Russian:
    1. It is not nessecary to use only one suffix. Sometimes we can use really wierd constructions. For example – “дом” [house] – “домик” – “домишко” – “домишечко”.
    2. Some forms of diminutive aren’t really small or fond. For example, “старичок” is fond, but “старикашка” isn’t, it’s quite negative. But “старикашечка” may be fond. + when person use a lot of diminutive in its speech it may be negative too (great likehood that it’s a sarcasm).

  7. Marie:

    Вы оба были прекрасны в тот день! На самом деле один из лучших номеров))

  8. Mark:

    Great post… where are the next parts? Can’t find them…