If you have no idea what a diminutive is, this article is for you. If all you know is that diminutives are suffixes that make nouns smaller, this article is also for you. I want to teach you the subtle meanings hidden within diminutives. Textbooks don’t tend to explain this, and not understanding it is preventing you from achieving three crucial goals in fluency: being witty in Spanish, sounding more natural, and understanding informal conversations.
Let’s start from zero.
What is a diminutive?
A diminutive is a type of suffix - some fixed letters we can add to the end of a word. A diminutive, when added to a word, makes the thing it refers to smaller. Here are a couple of examples in English using the diminutive suffix -let:
- drop + -let → droplet (a small drop)
- book + -let → booklet (a small book)
The term ‘diminutive’ can refer to either the suffix (e.g. -let) or the word that it has been added to (e.g. booklet). Sometimes the suffix is called the ‘diminutive suffix’.
Spanish has various types of suffixes, and diminutives are just one type (albeit a very important type). The word diminutive means ‘something that has been reduced’. In my opinion, this does not go nearly far enough in explaining the power that diminutives have in Spanish conversation.
How do I add a diminutive to a word in Spanish?
To add a diminutive to a word in Spanish, we usually need to drop a letter from the word first. For example, taking perro (male dog), and adding the -ito diminutive (the most widely used of our diminutives) to say little male dog:
- perro + -ito. We drop the -o, and add -ito, so perr- + -ito = perrito.
Of course you don’t need a diminutive to say “little dog” - you could just say “perro pequeño” or “perro chico”. But using the diminutive is shorter, and it gives an impression of cuteness as well.
You might be wondering if we complicate this further with feminine forms. And yes, we do!
- Masculine singular: perro + -ito → perrito (cute little male dog)
- Feminine singular: perra + -ita → perrita (cute little female dog)
We can pluralize diminutives just like we pluralize other nouns in Spanish:
- Masculine plural: perrito + s → perritos (cute little male dogs)
- Feminine plural: perrita + s → perritas (cute little female dogs)
For some words, the diminutives are a little more complicated because the letters change slightly. For example the common -ito diminutive of poco (a little) is poquito rather than pocito. This is so that the hard ‘c’ sound is retained. But I don’t want to go into too much depth on the spelling rules in this article, as they are covered well in textbooks and elsewhere on the web. Here I want to go into the deeper stuff - why diminutives exist, the hidden meanings they imply, and how to use them effectively!
Why do diminutives exist?
You might already be asking: “Why do you native Spanish speakers make our lives difficult with these weird diminutives when you could just say “perro pequeño” or “perro chico” instead?”
Here is my question for you: why would we use two words when we can use only one, “perrito”? Think about all those ways your native language enables you to speak quickly, with minimal effort. So economy of language is one reason to use diminutives, but it is definitely not the only reason…
Verbal language is full of emotions, judgments, and feelings
Diminutives signify a reduction in size, but this only partially explains their meaning. Language gives us various ways to communicate emotions, judgment, or disagreement, that extend beyond the literal meanings of the words we use. In Spanish, diminutives are a powerful tool for changing the implications of what we say.
In particular, diminutives in Spanish enable us to subtly soften certain messages.
Let me explain it better. As I said before, diminutives make things or living beings smaller. If you think about it, small things or little living beings can give us those “aaaww” feelings. It seems they call for tenderness and affection. Have you ever seen that tiny furniture in a doll house? Or how about a puppy or a kitty playing? Aaaww.
Therefore, when a person learning Spanish hears a diminutive, they might think it is just a matter of literal size, but in reality it is likely that the diminutive was added to convey an extra emotional message.
Diminutives are often used to show affection towards the things they are applied to. They are also used to iron out the roughness of certain words. In addition, they can show humour, pity, and even ridicule or contempt.
Diminutives are used frequently in daily conversations, and the studies show that in Latin America they are used even more than in Spain. Sometimes they are used with no conscious purpose, but often they carry strong additional implications beyond their most literal meanings.
5 ways diminutives are used to add hidden meaning
I am going to explain 5 ways in which diminutives are often used to add meaning to a sentence. As I go through, I will introduce 6 different diminutives: -ito/-ita, -ico/-ica, -ín/-ina, -illo/illa, -ucho/-ucha, and -uelo/-uela, so you can get a feel for how they work. But I’m not going to give you a big list of words, as there are lots of those elsewhere.
My focus here is on explaining the hidden meanings that diminutives are often used to convey. This is important information that you probably won’t find in your textbook. You, my dear prospective Spanish speaker, can and should take advantage of diminutives to enrich your Spanish, but you should understand their hidden meanings first!
1. Diminutives to show affection and tenderness
-ito/-ita (-itos/-itas in plural) is by far the most commonly-used diminutive in the Spanish-speaking world (though not in every single Spanish-speaking country).
- Adoro a mi perrita - I love/adore my little (female) dog
It could be because the dog is a puppy, yes. However, you might think it strange if the perrita turned out to be a huge adult mastiff… Well, this is actually a common way to show affection to our loved ones, big and small.
-ín/-ina (-ines/-inas in plural) is an alternative that is used in certain regions of Spain. For example:
- ¿Cómo está el pequeñín/la pequeñina? - How is the little boy/girl? (or baby boy/girl)
‘Pequeño’ is already ‘small’, so this redundancy is pure tenderness.
2. Diminutives to iron out the roughness of the reality
We take advantage of the affection and tenderness that small things induce in us to iron out the roughness in certain things we want to say or ask. Something that would otherwise sound tough becomes nicer with this strategy. We are effectively wrapping the word up in beautiful imaginary paper.
-ico/-ica (-icos/-icas in plural) is an alternative to -ito/-ita (introduced above) that is widely used in Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, and some parts of Spain. I remember Juanes’ album (Juanes is a Colombian author and singer) “La vida es un ratico” (Life is a little while).
- Rato (while) + -ico → ratico (little while)
The sentence “la vida es un ratico” sounds sweet to a native Spanish speaker’s ear, instead of giving them some stressful thought about how short life is (which is what it actually means in a literal sense).
There are words that already have some rudeness by themselves, like how it is rude to use viejo/vieja to refer to an old person. A rude elder you bump into on the street would be called viejo/vieja if you talked later about that unpleasant encounter. But to describe a nice and sweet elder you might use viejito/viejita (or perhaps viejecito/viejecita) instead.
3. Diminutives for humour
If you are adventurous and you want to make a humorous comment, you can apply a diminutive with fake tenderness and sarcasm to people you don’t like at all. For example you could say “sí, esa es mi querida amiguita” (she is my dear (little) friend), meaning that she is your enemy.
As another example, let’s say you hear a conversation between two neighbours, about a huge house on the corner of the street:
- “Ese es Marcos, el que compró la casita de la esquina.” (That is Marcos, the one who bought the little house on the corner.)
- “Ah, sí, la casita de la esquina. Pobrecito, Marcos.” (Oh, yes, the little house on the corner. Poor little Marcos.)
They both laugh about it, and there you are listening and not understanding what is going on. In this context the diminutives “casita” and “pobrecito” are used sarcastically to imply the opposite of their literal meanings.
4. Diminutives for pity
There is something quite controversial about the use of diminutives to express pity. The reason is that this is often an unconscious way to talk to a person you feel sorry for, and you think you are being nice, but the other person just feels terrible about the pity you feel for them. It happens a lot toward disabled people, and people with chronic diseases.
Instead of saying sordo/sorda (deaf), ciego/ciega (blind), or cojo/coja (lame), people have traditionally felt more comfortable saying sordito/sordita, cieguito/cieguita, or cojito/cojita. And, when talking about a person with a chronic disease, you will often hear people say “está enfermito/enfermita” instead of “está enfermo/enferma”.
This usage of diminutives is still common, but it is outdated. There has been a formal effort from our institutions to replace these words with more technical words that are not considered offensive.
5. Diminutives for ridicule or contempt (-illo/illa, -ucho/-ucha, -uelo/-uela)
These diminutives are less common, but are sometimes used to express ridicule or contempt.
-illo/-illa (-illos/-illas in plural):
- mujer (woman) + -illa → mujercilla
- hombre (man) + -illo → hombrecillo
The literal translation of ‘hombrecillo’ or ‘mujercilla’ would be ‘little man’ or ‘little woman’, but actually with this type of diminutive we look down on that person, we brush that man/woman aside. It is a way to call them weak and incapable.
(You might notice that it’s ‘hombrecillo’, not ‘hombreillo’, and ‘mujercilla’, not ‘mujerilla’… This is a good example of an extra letter having been added, in this case to make the word easier to pronounce.)
-illo/-illa can sometimes be used in a more literal way as well, for example:
- venado (deer) + -illo → venadillo (small deer) - in this case we are talking about a smaller size, not insulting the deer!
-ucho/-ucha (-uchos/-uchas in plural):
- casa (house) + -ucha → casucha (an ugly or badly-constructed house)
- médico (medical doctor) + -ucho → medicucho (an incompetent doctor)
-uelo/-uela (-uelos/-uelas, in plural) tends to combine ridicule and pity. Often letters are added and it appears as -zuelo/-zuela or -ezuelo/-ezuela:
- ladrón (thief) + -uelo → ladronzuelo (a thief that steals only small, easy things, because he’s not very good at stealing)
- rey (king) + -ezuelo → reyezuelo (a king who does not perform very well in his role)
By now you should have a pretty good understanding of diminutives, how they work, and, in particular, the hidden extra meanings they are used to convey. Listen out for them, and you will notice that people use them a lot. What you have learned from this article should help you understand what people are really saying when they use diminutives into their speech.
You should also start using diminutives in your own speech! I suggest you start with ito/ita, unless you happen to be in a country or region where ico/ico is more common. And I suggest you focus on using diminutives to express size, affection, humour, and to smooth over roughness, and avoid using them for pity, ridicule, or contempt!
Please also share this valuable information with other Spanish language learners you know. Thank you!