Making things smaller: About Diminutives

Thanks to Elyse McKenna and Arok Wolvengrey for letting me share their recent FaceBook exchange in the Nêyihawêwin (Cree) Word/Phrase of the Day Group about making diminutive forms out of ordinary nouns to describe smaller- (or younger-) than-ordinary things. Depending on context, diminutive forms can also be either affectionate or belittling. (Think “my cute little…” or “my poor little old…”)

Elyse wanted to know: “Do I just add ‘is’ to a noun when I am speaking about something that is smaller than usual? Is there a rule or way to know when to use ‘is’ or ‘isis’?”

Arok’s response (which suggests it’s simpler in the movies) runs through the details:

  • Most nouns add –is, but some might double that as –isis.
    (e.g. sâkahikan “lake”; sâkahikanis “small lake”, sâkahikanisis “pond”)
  • is is the usual form. Doubling it is often used for young people or animals as opposed to just size, or it can be an especially small version of something.
  • Some nouns, you will have to add –os or –osis
    (e.g. apiwikamik “living room”, apiwikamikos “small living room, small sitting room”)
  • If a noun ends in a combination of vowel plus w or y (i.e. Vw or Vy), then you make the vowel long (if it isn’t already), drop the w or y, and add –s (or –sis)
    (e.g. mêskanaw “road”, mêskanâs “trail, path”)
    (e.g. nâpêw “man”, nâpêsis “boy”; iskwêw “woman”, iskwêsis “girl”)
  • And a very few are even more complicated: you have to drop a final vowel and add –is(is) or drop a final –wa and add os(is).
    (e.g. niska “goose”, niskisis “gosling”: maskwa “bear”, maskosis “bear cub”)
  • And to top it all off, if there is a t sound in the original, this changes to c ([ts] or [ch]) in the diminutive.
    (e.g. têhtapiwin “chair” > cêhcapiwinis “small chair”)
    (e.g. atim “dog” > acimosis “puppy”)
    (e.g. nisit “my foot” > nisicis “my little foot”)

When you’re ready for even more examples (and details), you might like to read David Pentland’s 1975 Algonquian Conference paper, “Diminutive Consonant Symbolism in Algonquian” (thanks to Jila Ghomeshi for the reminder!)

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