Diminutives and reduplicatives in Chinese

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It would seem natural that all languages have diminutives, but how diminutives are formed in different languages must vary considerably.  In most cases that I'm aware of in Indo-European languages, the addition of a special suffix denoting smallness or connoting endearment is typical, but in other cases there are more complicated mechanisms at play.  The most elaborate system of diminutives I know of is Russian, where common given names are not only made into diminutives in irregular ways, they are then profusely elaborated (with some forms indicating doubled diminutiveness):  thus, Aleksander –> Sasha, Sashka, Sashen'ka, Sashechka, Sanya, Shura, Sashok.  Keeping track of all these variants was always one of the biggest challenges I faced in reading Russian novels.

Another common way to form diminutives is based on the babbling repetition of syllables when babies learn to talk, and adults mimic them by talking back to them in the same way.

Still today, reduplication and repetition are inculcated in Chinese children from a very young age.  Baby talk consists of many reduplicative words, e.g., gou3gou3 狗狗 (“dog”), mao1mao1 貓貓 (“cat”), bao4bao4 抱抱 (“hold [a baby or young child]”).  Young Chinese children often have nicknames that consist of repeated syllables, such as Bao3bao, Mao2mao, Ze2ze, Mei4mei, and so forth.  They often keep these childhood names even when they grow up, causing others sometimes to do a double-take when they meet an adult with a babyish name.  (This occasionally happens in English too, where childhood nicknames carry over into adulthood [e.g., Cappy, Buzzy], but it is hard to think of English childhood names that consist of repeated syllables, whereas this is extremely common in Chinese.

I myself went through three distinct stages in the development of my name:  Vicky [from birth through elementary school and middle school], Vic [high school and college], Victor [after college until the present time]; however, I am still “Vic” to family members and a few very close friends, though some of them have also taken to calling me Victor as a sign of respect.  Although no one ever called me VicVic, interestingly one of my nieces did call me VicBic before she went to elementary school.  Many of my Chinese undergraduate and graduate students, especially girls, have reduplicated names:  Jiajia, Lala, Zhenzhen, but boys do too:  Binbin.

Chinese is permeated with reduplicatives, and not just for the purpose of forming diminutives.  Here are just a few examples:

kànkàn 看看 ("have / take a look")

guāiguāi 乖乖 ("nice; obedient; well-behaved; darling; lambkin")

gāogāoxìngxìng 高高兴兴 ("gleeful; cheerful; really happy")

mǎmǎhǔhǔ 馬馬虎虎 ("so-so; careless; casual")

Perhaps the most famous contemporary instance of a Chinese reduplicated baby name that has carried on into adulthood is that of Bo Guagua ("Melon-Melon"), the son of the disgraced Chinese politician, Bo Xilai.

Bó Guāguā 薄瓜瓜

Báo Xīlái 薄熙來

Of course, not all duplicative terms in Chinese are diminutives, e.g.:

shūshu 叔叔 ("uncle; father's younger brother")

jiùjiu 舅舅 ("uncle; mother's brother")

gūgū 姑姑 ("aunt[ie]; father's sister")

— unless we interpret them as being spoken from the point of view of a child.

Here are a couple of scholarly references to literary and linguistic aspects of repetition in Chinese:

Cecile Chu-Chin Sun, The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011)

Perry Link, An Anatomy of Chinese:  Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), esp. pp. 191-93.

A full explanation for the high degree of repetitiousness (both near and exact) in Chinese poetry (and in Chinese more generally) would require the writing of an entire thesis and entail recourse to analytical methods drawn from a wide variety of fields, subfields, and disciplines, including grammar, syntax, phonology, psychology, cultural studies, and even cybernetics (which pays careful attention to redundancy).  I venture to say, however, that in the final analysis, the main reasons for the frequent resort to repetition in Chinese poetry and in Chinese discourse more generally are directly or indirectly linked to the unique (in today’s world) writing system.


  1. Zhengsheng Zhang said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

    This is really an interesting topic. I am most intrigued by the last statement:

    I venture to say, however, that in the final analysis, the main reasons for the frequent resort to repetition in Chinese poetry and in Chinese discourse more generally are directly or indirectly linked to the unique (in today’s world) writing system.

    Would Victor give us a follow-up post on the relationship between characters and repetition?


  2. January First-of-May said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    One non-Chinese example of a reduplicative baby name that carried on into adulthood is (Ricardo) Kaka, the Brazilian soccer player.

  3. cameron said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    John F. Kennedy Jr. was widely referred to as John-John by the press. But I think that was a designation invented by the press, and not a real family nickname.

  4. Bloix said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

    "but it is hard to think of English childhood names that consist of repeated syllables,"

    JoJo is one. (I was called Jojo for a while.) Lulu. Didi. Mimi. Sissy (although that's really sis[ter] with a "y").
    Coco, Zsa Zsa and Bibi are non-English, non-Chinese examples.

  5. François Demay said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

    In French we have not a few cases :
    André => Dédé (La valse à Dédé de Montmartre. a song)
    Maurice => Momo (Maurice Chevalier)
    Julie / Juliette => Juju
    Paul => Popaul
    Andrée => Dédée
    Bernard => Nanard (Bernard Tapie)
    Claude => Cloclo (Claude François, a singer : Comme d'habitude)
    Fanfan (François ? / Fanfan la Tulipe)
    Mimi (Michelle ? / Mimi Pinson)

    François Demay

  6. François Demay said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

    one of the best litteray case is Victor Hugo and Juliette Drouet

    Les Lettres d'amour de Juju et Toto


  7. Cyndy Ning said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 3:29 pm

    See https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00449691/document for a discussion of reduplicatives and "echo words" in Hindi-Urdu.

  8. The Other Mark said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    Isn't the "-ka" suffix a way of making a diminutive in Russian? It's just that their given names tend to be so long that you need to shorten them as well as add the suffix.

    Aleksander gets all sorts of diminutives, but they all tend to have the -ka, -ya etc. What they don't get called is "Aleks".

  9. January First-of-May said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

    @The Other Mark:
    Basically this, yes, but "Aleks" in particular is a common (if rather modern, and possibly influenced by some foreign language) shortening for "Aleksey" (traditionally "Lyosha" or "Alyosha").

  10. David Marjanović said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

    Not all languages conflate diminutives and nicknames. English has a dedicated nickname suffix (-y), while its diminutive suffix (-kin) is very rarely used and apparently completely absent from nicknames. Both are shared with German, incidentally, where -chen is common, productive, and shows up in 20th-century and older northern German nicknames.

    Russian isn't exceptional among Slavic languages; diminutives and double diminutives are most common in Czech.

  11. maidhc said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

    -o is another suffix used for nicknames in English. Found particularly in Australia, UK and Ireland. Examples: Mark "Jacko" Jackson, Australian rules footballer, Jacko for Michael Jackson, Miko Russell, Irish traditional musician.

    Also used for "garbos" (people who pick up your trash), "musos" (musicians), etc. Maybe it is a diminutive, at least in Australia.

    Same with -y, like "postie", "sickie", etc. Diminutives?

    Should we include Macca, brekker, etc. too? Brekker goes back to the 1920s, at least. And rugger and soccer, even older.

  12. maidhc said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

    "Cookie" is from Dutch, but "bikky" (as in "milk and bikkies")? "Bakkie" (S Africa) also from Dutch, not the same as British "backie" (riding double on a bike).

  13. Tom said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    Indeed a very interesting topic, Prof. Mair! I've written a few graduate seminar papers on the topic of repetition in Chinese poetry, parts of which are going in to my dissertation. A few other studies I've found inspiring are:

    Sun, Jingtao [孙景涛]. “Reduplication in Old Chinese.” Ph.D. thesis, University of British Columbia, 1999.
    Péi Pǔxián 裴普賢, Shī cí qǔ diéjù xīnshǎng yánjiū 詩詞曲疊句欣賞研究. Taipei: Sānmín shūjú, 1969.

    But none of these studies provide the sort of comprehensive treatment you're talking about. I hope to take up the challenge some day, if you haven't already done so yourself.

  14. Adrian Morgan said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 8:43 pm

    I learned about one use of the reduplicative in Chinese just recently, on page 295 of Mark Rosenfelder's recently published _China Construction Kit_ (http://www.zompist.com/china.html). Of which I received a free copy for helping with the front cover design concept. I haven't read it properly yet, but have idly opened to random pages as you do.

    The aforementioned page tells us that the Chinese reduplicative can be used to indicate that an action is performed briefly or to a small extent or tentatively, or in order to soften an imperative.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 9:24 pm


    It sounds like you're poised to take up the challenge of a comprehensive investigation of repetition in Chinese, and I warmly encourage you to carry through with it after you finish your dissertation.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 2:13 am

    In the "metaphor" chapter of his Anatomy book, Perry Link argues with the thesis of Lakoff and Johnson that repetition means "more of something" in "all languages of the world."


    Lakoff and Johnson cite duplication as another case in which "more form is more content."When a noun, verb, or adjective stands for something, the same word repeated can stand for more of the same or a higher degree of it.[1] They write that the duplication principle applies, as far as they know, to "all languages of the world," but for Chinese it works only unevenly.It often holds for nouns and auxiliary nouns, such as /renren/ 人人'person-person—everybody', /jiajiahuhu/ 家家户户 'every house and home', /tiantian/ 天天'every day', and so on.When Gao Xingjian describes a potholed highway as /daochu kengkeng wawa/ 到处坑坑凹凹 'pits and cavities everywhere,[2] the idea is that there are a great many of both /keng/ ‘pits’ and /wa /‘cavities’/./But the principle does not work for other nouns, such as /baba/ 爸 爸 'daddy', /meimei/ 妹 妹 'younger sister', /taitai/ 太太 'Mrs.', /baobao/ 宝宝 'baby', /xingxing/ 'star' 星 星, /xingxing/ 猩猩 'ape', and many other examples.[3] Sometimes, especially in southwestern Mandarin (around Yunnan), noun repetition implies "smallness", as in /qiuqiu/ 球 球 'small ball or bead."[4] This tendency for repetition to suggest “small” or “less” actually contradicts the hypothesis that "repetition is more."

    Lakoff and Johnson hold that "more form is more content" applies to verbs and adjectives as well, i.e., that "more of the verb [or adjective] stands for more of the action [or property]."[5] But here, too, Chinese fits only unevenly.Repeated adjectives in Chinese do often intensify the degree of something, as in /chi de baobao/ /de/ 吃 得饱饱的 'eaten good and full', /zhongzhong de da/ 重重地打 'beat fiercely', /jiejieshishi de/ 结结实实的 'strong and solid', and so on.Sometimes, though, the repetition of adjectives diminishes the strength of the adjective, or at least makes it a bit fuzzy, as in /wuzili heihei de /屋子里黑黑的 'darkish in the room' or /yanlei wangwanger de/ 眼泪汪汪儿的 'teary-eyed'.

    Repeated verbs, for their part, almost never signal “more” of the verb.They are commonly "verb plus cognate object," as in /kankan/ (short for /kanyikan/ 看一看) 'take a look', /chichi/ 吃吃 'have a bite (of something)', etc., and, somewhat less often, are "verb plus complement," as in /men kai-kai le/ 门 开开了 'the door has been opened'.In both these cases the second verb has a clear function, but it is not that of "adding more verb."There is the problem, too, that in Chinese repetition occurs in a large variety of onomatopoeia and other lively expressions that are not onomatopoeia but are close to it.Dogs say /wangwang/ 汪 汪 'bow-wow'; something sourish is /suanbuliuliude/ 酸不溜溜的 (literally ‘sour-not-slippery-slippery-ish’); a chubby child is /pangdudude/ 胖 嘟 嘟的 (literally ‘fat-bunch-bunch-ish’).It is hard to pinpoint in these examples what the repetition is telling us; but it is something considerably more subtle than “more”.


    [1] Lakoff and Johnson, /Metaphors We Live By, /p. 128.

    [2] Gao Xingjian, /Lingshan/ 靈山 (Taibei: Lianjing chubanshe 聯經出版社, 1990), p. 1

    [3] See Yuen Ren Chao, /A Grammar of Spoken Chinese/, pp. 198-210.Several of my examples here are drawn from these pages of Chao’s.

    [4] Chao,/A Grammar of Spoken Chinese/, p. 202.

    [5] Lakoff and Johnson, /Metaphors We Live By, /p. 128

  17. Rachel said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 3:45 am

    Dr. Coblin, I think it was (my memory of grad school is fading), described reduplication as a test for whether a word is a verb or a stative verb/adjective in MSM. Reduplicating a verb lightens it: 看看,說說。 But reduplicating a stative verb intensifies it: 高高,亮亮。Seems largely in agreement with Perry Link's thesis.

  18. Adrian Bailey said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    @ David: This feature appears to be common to the cultures of eastern Europe. Hungary is also very productive. So, our daughter Catherine (Katalin) can be Kata, Kati, Katika, Katicska, Katinka etc. and the effect is increased by the possessive endings (Katinkánk = our little Cathy). I can't think of too many examples of reduplication though, but they include Lala for Lajos and Csicsi for Csilla.

    Diminutive nicknames often seem to bear little resemblance to the original name, e.g. Pistike for István, Pancsi for Anna, Zsókika for Erzsébet, and Ityike for Ilona, but we (used to) see this in English too, e.g. Peggy for Margaret and Dickie for Richard.

  19. The Other Mark said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    I always wondered why English had nicknames that bore so little resemblance to the original name — Dick for Richard, for example.

    I suspect that almost all such nicknames arose during the Middle Ages. The proportion of Richards was very high, and surnames not used much, so a range of alternatives for Richard would have been very useful. Boys were often named after their fathers, and you have the issues of telling them apart in normal conversation.

    The number of girls' names in particular was very limited, Elizabeth, Catherine, Anne and Margaret being very common, and again they have a lot of alternatives.

    I wonder if the same operated in Hungarian. It is almost the same names as were used in English (Elizabeth, Catherine, Anne, Stephen) except for Ilona.

  20. Bloix said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

    "I can't think of too many examples of reduplication though,"
    Zsa Zsa was born Gábor Sári in Budapest.

  21. Sky Onosson said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

    I now realize that both my children's nicknames are reduplications, partial in one case:

    Cyan -> Bud-bud (sometimes just "Bud")
    Shoki -> Shok-a-loks

    Completely unintentionally, I can't even recall when/how those names came about – like most nicknames, I suppose.

  22. K Chang said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 3:45 am

    There's always the other diminutive: 小 xiao-something, at least in Mandarin. In Cantonese would be something-zai 仔 

    Probably covered before, but the reduplicatives were heavily used for the *fuwa* mascots in the Beijing Olympics.

  23. Jonathan said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    Reduplicative nicknames are really popular with Filipinos, and they seem to frequently keep them far into adulthood. I don't know that it says anything about them, but it's certainly noticeable to this American when I read about their president named Noynoy.

  24. Dave Cragin said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

    @the other Mark: The linguist Jonathan McWhorter offers an interesting explanation of the origin of “Ned” for Ed and “Nelly” for “Elly,” i.e., if you trace “my” back to Middle & Old English, it was “min” (pronounced mine).

    A parent might say “min Ed” and “min Elly.” To others it could sound like “my ned” or “my nelly”, particularly as “min” became spoken as “my.” This fits with your timing of the Middle Ages.

    Learning the origin of Dick for Richard & Bill for William would be interesting….

  25. BZ said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

    I want to comment on Russian nicknames for Alexander, since that's my brother's name and all. Only Sasha and Shura on your list are actual nicknames (and usually you pick one and not both). Incidentally, both of these are both boys' and girls' nicknames (girls named Alexandra). The general "nickname" suffix is -a, but the name is shortened irregularly before applying it in most cases.

    Once you get the nickname, the other forms are pretty standard. Replacing the -a with -ka is actually not a diminutive, but the opposite, something you would call someone to express displeasure. It can, however, serve as a diminutive when used by close friends. Regular diminutives are formed by replacing the -a with -en'ka, -echka, -on'ka, or -ochka. Not every one of these will work with every name, but usually at least one of these will be used. That obviously doesn't explain where Sanya and Sashok come from. Sanya is kind of an alternative nickname for Sasha. As such, you can apply the usual diminutive suffixes (e.g. San'ka, Sanechka) to it. Sashok is a one of. I don't recall ever meeting anyone with that nickname, but I'm vaguely aware of its existence.

    As for "Alex" (however you spell it), I'm pretty sure that it was in fact used in Czarist Russia in high society, where English (and French) nicknames were often used alongside Russian ones. I can't be certain right now, but there maybe people called Alex in Tolstoy's writing.

    Another way to show familiarity is to call someone by a shortened version of their patronymic, but I won't go into that.

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