Czech Culture & Adaptation Language

Being small

May 21, 2010
diminutive word in a dictionary. diminutive concept

Photo by Casimiro PT/

The language of Czech diminutives

With the imminent arrival of the new baby, our house is filled again with soft toys, fresh diapers and receiving blankets. Along with all the baby paraphernalia, I’ve also noticed that we’re beginning to air out our Czech “baby talk,” or the broad implementation of diminutives, which alters a word to convey smallness, intimacy, endearment or even triviality. Diminutives are commonly used in Czech, children and babies, in particular, are customary recipients of these “little” versions, as they fit the parameters of both being physically small and emotionally dear, or much-beloved.

Nearly all Czech nouns, some adjectives and other parts of speech have diminutive versions and I often realize only belatedly that I’m using a diminutive form, but it’s the version that I’ve picked up conversationally. Interestingly, in Slavic languages, the diminutive form is characteristically longer than the original word, since it is formed from the addition of a variety of suffixes, including (-ka, -ko, -ek, -ík, -inka, -enka, -ečka, -ička, -ul-, -unka, -íček, -ínek). Whereas in English, a “pet name” is often a shortened form of the original name, such as turning Radek into Rad (a nickname cloned by some of my husband’s American guy friends), in Czech, a youngster named Radek would be much more likely to be called Radeček, at least by his grandmother. My daughter’s first name Anna has a multitude of appropriate diminutives, including Anka, Anička, Andulka, Andula, Anča, Aninka, Anina, and Anuška, although she typically refers to herself only as Anička.

It’s also a common practice to refer to grandparents by the diminutive forms of babička and děděček, instead of baba and děda, as terms of endearment. And when asked about my children, I’ve even grown accustomed to responding that I have a holčička and a chlapeček, as opposed to a holka and chlap, as in a girl and a boy. With the ease of repeated practice, these terms now roll off my tongue, especially since I hear other parents using similar terms for their own children in our regular conversations. However there are other instances, particularly when proper names or degrees of size are concerned, that diminutives throw me for a loop.

When speaking with adults, I always feel that I need to achieve a certain level of intimacy before I invoke the diminutive, which means that everyone in my English class referred to their classmate Mirek as Míra, while I continued to call him Mirek until the end of the term so as not to appear too familiar with someone I had only just met. However, conversely, after our first lesson when I introduced myself as Emily, a few of my students immediately began to refer to me as Emilka, which I took as a positive signal that they would welcome a more informal atmosphere during lessons, a fact that proved true as the year got underway. While I was flattered that I’d received a Czech “nickname,” I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries and make any student feel ill-at-ease by being too friendly.

I tend to avoid the diminutive form of most Czech words when I have the choice. The variability of any particular diminutive’s meaning always makes me feel like I’m treading in uncharted territory. For instance, I’m more apt to remark to my neighbor, “Máte hezkou zahradu” instead of the diminutive, “Máte hezkou zahrádku.” Both versions mean, “You have a nice garden,” but the second version implies either literally that the garden is small (perhaps a balcony or terrace garden), or that the feeling when viewing the garden is one of coziness or intimacy, or even that the speaker wants to imply that the garden is insignificant. Each of the versions gives a potentially more precise image of the garden than the first one, but I’m usually too worried about speaking with the correct diminutive degree. Plus, I’d never want to unintentionally insult someone with inappropriate diminutive talk.

However, having been partly raised in a Czech environment, my children don’t seem to have any inhibitions about using diminutive talk or “baby” talk to express themselves. The other night Radek assembled a baby bouncer for the new baby, complete with a musical toy bar, which he left by the children’s art table. Without batting an eye, Oliver walked over to the bouncer first thing in the morning and started rocking it furiously. He then turned to me and said, “Can I say, “Čau prcku! ” to the baby?” (Literally, “hey, squirt!”) Although this expression isn’t explicitly a diminutive since prcek seems to be the base word, it’s not one that I’ve heard very often, so I knew someone must have used it on Oliver himself. When asked Oliver if he’d like to be called “a squirt,” he quickly changed his tune and said he’d call the baby something nicer, as soon as he could think of what.

When Anna was a toddler, she’d mistakenly coined, “fishika” and “dadika” essentially adding Czech diminutive forms on English words, instead of the proper diminutives of “rybička” and “tatínek.” The terms were so popular within our family that Oliver started using them to describe a small fish and his father, before he learned the proper diminutives. These days however, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the children speak the words properly, while we adults still go around using their “cute” inventive diminutives.

In Czech, there is another form of “baby talk” that includes using different expressions when speaking, generally with regard to small children, although I’ve heard babička even using some forms on us as adults. Verbs like “to eat” (jíst) take on another form with regard to children, or when used affectionately to denote someone’s youth. Children are encouraged to “hamat” or “papat” their food. I don’t pretend to know how to spell these childish versions, even though I hear them on a daily basis. There is also spinkat (versus spát), which means to sleep, and others that I’m learning from my children. In general though, these versions seem much more like baby talk than regular diminutives.

In the past week or so, Oliver’s starting talking like a baby in English as well as Czech, making sounds and gestures to indicate what he wants instead of using his rapidly expanding vocabulary. I’m trying to balance between asking him to talk like a big boy and ignoring the baby talk. I know that the upcoming months will bring a significant change for everyone in our house as we adjust to having another family member, and if the children feel secure in using a few words or behaviors from their baby days, I don’t think it’s too significant. For the moment, just reminding Oliver that babies don’t eat ice cream, and they don’t ride scooters like bigger boys, does seems to bring him back to speaking in complete sentences again, particularly when he wants to be treated like a chlap and not like a chlapeček.

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