Little big car

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Martin van Velsen writes:

I’ve recently been fascinated by the use of diminutives in Dutch. It seems to me intuitively that in the last 5 years the frequency of usage has gone up drastically. It all started a few days ago with a conversation I had with my sister, the contents of which mimicked an article I read today in a Dutch newspaper. Both my sister and the article consistently used language describing the Curiosity Rover using the diminutive as in: small car or small vehicle.

In the most traditional and conservative Dutch newspaper, comparable to the Wall Street Journal, I found the following fascinating sentence:

“En dan is Curiosity ook nog eens het grootste (zeg een Ford Ka), zwaarste (900 kilo) en beste uitgeruste Marswagentje ooit.”

Roughly translated it says:

“And then to imagine that Curiosity is also the largest (roughly a Ford Ka car), heaviest (900 kilograms) and best equipped Mars-vehicle-diminutive ever”.

If taken literally the sentence describes the rover as both very large and very small. You could ask yourself why this type of ‘misplaced’ language usage happens, but I’m also curious to know if there is indeed an increase in the last several years.

This morning, Google News finds 56 current instances of Marswagentje, vs. 290 of Marswagen — so the application of the diminutive in this case is optional but fairly common (16%).

According to Bruce Donaldson, “Dutch: A Comprehensive Grammar” (lists of examples are paraphrased):

It is particularly the nuances of meaning expressed by the diminutive which make it so peculiarly unique in Dutch but also so difficult for non-native speakers to master. The following can only serve as a guide to its main uses; its potential is infinite as it is very much a productive ending and is not merely restricted to nouns. On the whole the connotation of a diminutive form is either neutral or positive, but sometimes it fulfils a derogatory function.

(a) The diminutive’s basic function is to make things small […]

But even when the diminutive merely indicates that something is small, the diminutized nouns is commonly preceded by the adjective klein. […]

(b) The diminutive is also used as a form of endearment; first names (and not just of children, but particularly women’s names) are often diminutized: […]

(c) Sometimes the diminutive form of a noun renders a completely separate lexical item in English: [Examples: brood “loaf of bread”, broodje “bread roll”; kaart “map”, kaartje “ticket”; ..]

(d) The diminutive is used to itemize some quantitative nouns, i.e. nouns that stand for a collective quantity (particularly varieties of food and drink) which take on the meaning of one item of that substance when they bear the diminutive ending: [Examples – bier “beer”, een biertje “a glass of beer’ hout “wood”, een houtje “a bit of wood”; …]

(e) A few nons exist only as diminutives: [Examples – meisje “girl”; lachertje “laughable suggestion, situation”]

(f) Occasionally the diminutive can give a derogatory connotation to a noun: [Examples – een burgermannetje “a petit bourgeois”; een raar taaltje “a strange lingo”]

“Marswagentje” doesn’t seem to fit any of these categories precisely. The Curiosity rover is small compared to many earthly vehicles, but it’s by far the largest of the Mars rovers, and it’s not tiny even by the standards of earth cars. It’s sort of cute and beloved, but the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t refer casually to the “cute little Curiosity roverling”, or whatever.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that there’s any digital Dutch historical corpus that would let us determine whether the frequency of diminutives has increased in the past five years. (Though with luck, someone will be able to refute this in the comments.)  However, some larger-scale historical perspective is available from William Shetter, “The Dutch Diminutive“, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 1959:

Nearly everyone with some knowledge of the Dutch language has been struck by the frequency of its use of diminutives. Greater familiarity, especially with the spoken idiom, only strengthens the realization that they play a highly important expressive role. It is hardly surprising that the diminutive — usually defined as primarily an indicator of smallness in kind? — is associated with and sometimes even explained through the physical smallness of the country itself. And yet, although diminutives are found in the earliest medieval Dutch texts, their use seems to have come into particular favor in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the “Golden Age” of cultural and commercial expansion in Holland, a period of great prosperity in which a bourgeois hominess and contentment began to find expression in literary form. They occupy an increasingly important place in erotic poetry, for instance that of P. C. Hooft (1581-1647) and J. van den Vondel (1587-1679). In the eighteenth century, their extreme popularity in the language of polite society is reflected in the appearance of satires. Probably the most famous is that of Justus van Effen in his Hollandsche Spectator, one of the moralizing serials popular at the time. In a series of essays purporting to recount the love affair of a young middle-class lady named Agnietje, van Effen pokes fun at his fellow citizens by sprinkling passages with diminutives to the point of absurdity. The excessive use of them especially among women as an expression of cozy familiarity was satirized only a few years later by Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken in their novel Sara Burgerhart (1782).

So perhaps the Marswagentje is being assimilated into the sphere of “bourgeois hominess and contentment”?

[A few other links from which I learned something about Dutch diminutive: Walter Daelemans, “Data Mining as a Method for Linguistics Analysis: Dutch Diminutives“, Folia Linguistica 1997; Reinhild Vandekerckhove, “Belgian Dutch versus Netherlandic Dutch: New patterns of divergence? On pronouns of address and diminutives“, Multilingua 2005;  Karen Keune, Roeland van Hout, and R. Harald Baayen, “Socio-geographic variation in morphological productivity in spoken Dutch : a comparison of statistical techniques“, JADT 2006.]



46 Comments

  1. SFReader said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    Czech also has a very similar excessive love of dimunitives

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 7:34 am

    I don’t quite see what’s so uniquely Dutch about all this. Among the European languages I am more or less familiar with, English and French seem to be relatively alone in not having a regular and productive diminutive construction, and in most of the others all the features mentioned by Donaldson are present.

    Just think señorita, allegretto, der Bingle…

    [(myl) Do any of these languages optionally attach a diminutive to the word for vehicle in discussing the Curiosity in formal (e.g. serious newspaper) writing? French news stories seems to use véhicule, voiture, rover, robot, etc.; Spanish seems to use robot explorador, rover, vehiculo explorador, etc.; German Marsrover, Mars-rover, Mars-robot, Forschungsrobot, etc.

    The thing about Dutch diminutives isn’t that they exist, or that they express a certain complex range of meanings, but that they seem to be used so very often, in a productive way, in the formal written language as well as in more informal registers.]

  3. David said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    The diminutive in Swiss German (“-li”) gets tacked onto basically everything in spoken language. The equivalent in Schriftdeutsch (written German, “-chen”) is used much less often. I would guess that’s because the written form almost always puts you into a more-formal register.

  4. Bob said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 7:49 am

    In Afrikaans the diminutive is almost obligatory.

  5. Pat Hubbard said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:25 am

    Might it be that the diminutive is intended to convey that the vehicle is robotically controlled rather than designed to be occupied by a driver?

  6. Henning Makholm said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    @Coby: I cannot off the top of my head think of any similarly productive diminutive in Danish.

  7. UK Lawyer said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    The Scots use of the word “wee” (will you take a wee dram, etc) seems to achieve some of these varied meanings.

  8. Stephen Nycz said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:32 am

    The fact that the diminutives are always Het nouns (‘neuter’) has had me wondering whether their use is part of a move away from making the distinction between De and Het nouns, and that at some point there might be only one class of nouns and only one article.

  9. Warsaw Will said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    The one I like in Dutch is volkstuintje (literally people’s little garden) for allotment.

    I live in Poland and diminutives are very common in Polish. Lower bus numbers and room numbers, for example, are usually referred to by their diminutives. There is a set system for diminutives for first names, sometimes with a diminutive of the diminutive – Małgorzata – Małgosia – Gosia. One zloty is almost always (a) złotówka (a little zloty) etc.

  10. JS Bangs said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    I see that the first commenter has taken my point: the attributes given are not “so peculiarly unique” to Dutch, but are found in nearly every language with productive diminutives. I know that Romanian and nearly all of the Slavic languages illustrate these same features.

    What may be true, though, is that Dutch is relatively unusual in the use of its diminutives in formal writing. I know that diminutives are somewhat disfavored in Romanian formal writing, with the exception of those diminutives which actually specify a different lexical item (variants of c, d, and e in the list above).

  11. Robert Coren said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    My favorite example of diminutive-augmentative is Italian, and more or less literal: violoncello = “little big viol” (not to be confused with violino, “little viol”).

  12. Margriet van der Heijden said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 9:55 am

    A small comment on this nice column (for the second time, this morning it was not posted for some reason).

    First, a Ford Ka is a small car – and the Dutch very often call it an ”autootje”. Comparing a ”small rover” to a Ford Ka therefore does not seem inconsistent to me.

    Also the quoted sentence doesn’t say that the Curiosity is small and large at the same time. It rather says that is the largest among the small Mars vehicles.

    The question remains of course: why ‘wagentje’ at all? Why a dimunitive?
    I think because of this: Curiosity is all alone in a huge red desert, far away from earth.
    As humans seem small in the mountains, and may even feel humble, the rover seems small compared to the vast planes covered with red dust.
    The dimunitive expresses that. To my mind it is therefore not pejorative, or ‘bougeois homy’, rather it makes the rover seem ‘brave’. In Dutch: ‘klein maar dapper’ (small but brave).

    Best regards, Margriet van der Heijden (science editor who wrote the article in the paper mentioned)

  13. michael farris said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 10:03 am

    Warsaw Will: złotówka isn’t an example of diminuitization as such, it’s a nominalization (which has a diminutive in it). The -ówka ending is also used (among other ways) to create the names of alcoholic beverages like żurawinówki (cranberry vodka) etc.

    AFAICT after just a couple of minutes of googling the evidence from Polish isn’t clear. Some readers refer to Curiosity as samochodzik (car-dim) but formal writing refers to it as łazik (rover, from łazić – to wander/go around). I can’t tell if the -ik ending is the diminutive or not.

    I have noticed that it’s often treated as animate (opuścił łazika instead of opuścił łazik) ‘released the rover’

    A particular use of diminutives in spoken Polish is to make utterances more polite. Ticket inspectors, for example, ask to see ‘bileciki’ (ticket’s-dim) rather than bilety. In marketplaces sellers also liberally add dimunitives to unlikely products (like poł kilo wołowinki = half kilo of beef-dim).

  14. Gary said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    I understand that in Mandarin the diminutive suffix -er is used to clarify the syntax, and means not much more than “this is a noun”.

  15. Margriet van der Heijden said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    ps diminutive of course. Wrong twich, sorry – typed too fast

  16. Frans said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 10:30 am

    One note: the fragment was taken from the NRC website, which is not quite the same as the article on the front page of the newspaper of August 6, 2012. It doesn’t change anything because the same term was used, but it’s my impression that the website is a touch more spontaneous, i.e. less formal.

    A quick search in the NRC archives (subscribers only, sorry) shows the specific term “marswagentje” has been in use in that newspaper since at least 1991 (the digital archives go back no further than that).

    “Tekening van Marswagentje (rover) dat grondmonsters verzamelt. Misschien nog voor 2000 realiteit.” (Drawing of Mars roverling (rover) collecting ground samples. Will perhaps be reality before 2000.)

    That’s from next to an article by Wim Kohler. “Schele hoofdpijn.” Achtergrond | Donderdag 01-08-1991 | Sectie: Overig | Pagina: 3

    Following that there’s nothing until ’96 when the newspaper reports the failed Russian Mars 96. In ’97 the word is used in seven articles (about Pathfinder). So far the word has been used in two articles in 2012.

    For what extremely little it’s worth, this doesn’t seem to support the notion that diminutive usage has gone up.

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    I agree with the commenters who have said that the Dutch diminutives are not especially unusual in the European context.

    Specifically to answer MYL’s question in response to Cory Lubliner, it is pretty easy to find diminutives in Italian news reports on the web. In general the most common way to refer to Curiosity is as rover or robot (the latter is a long-standing loanword in Italian, but rover does not appear in the relevant sense in the big unabridged De Mauro dictionary from 2000, which lists vast numbers of foreign words). I also found a few instances of sonda (‘probe’). But the science section of Repubblica (a leading national newspaper) also used robottino ‘robot-DIM’ in its report on 8 August, as did the online news source newnotizie.it on 31 July. And columnist Carlo Rovelli, writing a somewhat more personal piece in Repubblica on 9 August, uses both machinetta (which could be either ‘car-DIM’ or ‘machine-DIM’ in the context) and giocattolino ‘toy-DIM’ in addition to rover, robot, etc.

    My intuitions as a fluent speaker of Italian and a formerly pretty competent speaker of Dutch are that both languages use diminutives a lot, in many of the same ways, and probably more than many other European languages that have diminutives, specifically including relatively formal contexts. The main difference is that Dutch has only one basic diminutive suffix (with various mostly predictable allomorphs), whereas Italian has two different basic ones (-ino, -etto) plus some more specialised ones (-ello, -otto), plus an augmentative (-one) and a pejorative (-accio), with lots of possibilities for creative combination of multiple suffixes (as Robert Coren’s violoncello example above).

  18. Matt Heath said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    Searching “curiosity marte “carrinho”” in Google News picks up a few formal news articles using the diminutive in Portuguese.

  19. George Amis said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    This sort of thing is satirically parodied in Henry Carey’s poem Namby Pamby (1726), which is about the verse of Ambrose Philips.

  20. Edith B said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    Although apparently there are plenty of hits for “Marswagen,” that word seems strained to me — a newspaper editor’s effort to turn the journalist’s “Marswagentje” into more formal language, bordering on hyper-correction. The diminutive in Marswagentje has nothing to do with smallness or cuteness — a “wagentje” is a particular kind of vehicle. To me it (sort of) falls in the same category — c — as your examples kaart/kaartje and brood/broodje: examples where the simple noun and the diminutive noun represent different items entirely. (I say “sort of,” because the two meanings are not as segregated as brood and broodje, and there are instances where a wagentje is just a small wagen.)

    A wagen is a cart or a buggy drawn by a horse, or, in some dialects, a regular car. A wagentje, on the other hand, is a pram or a toy cart, or a robotic, remote-controlled kind of vehicle. A vehicle that drives around on Mars, controlled from Earth (in my mind) falls squarely into the “wagentje” category, regardless of size. Using “wagentje” in this context does not imply that it’s small or cute, and it’s not an affected/feminine/cozy use of the diminutive either. It merely identifies it as a robotic/industrial/scientific kind of vehicle. I would not call the use of the diminutive in Martin van Velsen’s example ‘misplaced’ at all.

    [(myl) — Thanks! This seems to resolve the mystery. It’s not 100% clear to me why a robotic/industrial/scientific kind of vehicle deserves a diminutive, but on your account, that’s just a lexical fact, and no stranger than the fact that een kaartje is a ticket rather than a small map.]

  21. leoboiko said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

    To illustrate what others pointed, here are some Brazilian Portuguese examples for most of the “peculiarly unique nuances of meaning”:

    a) Cachorro (dog); cachorrinho (small dog);
    b) Márcia → Marcinha (woman’s name, +endearment); pai (dad) → paizinho (daddy);
    c) Calça (pants, trousers) → calcinha (panties; female underwear); quente (hot) → quentinha (ready-made hot meal);
    d) I can’t think of examples of those. Melzinho is a word for a small plastic packet of mel (honey), and cervejinha is an (endearing? euphemistic?) term for cerveja “beer”, but I don’t think they’re semantically itemizing in the manner described.
    e) Galinha “chiken” (there is galo “rooster” but no *gala=chicken); farinha “flour”; mindinho “pinky, little finger”;
    f) Burguesinho “petit bourgeois”, sujeitozinho “petty man”.
    And there are a range of other meanings not listed above (e.g. euphemism, irony, a somewhat productive ending for toys…).

  22. languagehat said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    It’s sort of cute and beloved, but the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t refer casually to the “cute little Curiosity roverling”, or whatever.

    It is, of course, completely irrelevant how the WSJ, or any English-language source, would refer to the rover.

    [(myl) It’s relevant to the (implicit) argument that goes “All/most languages have ways of forming diminutive expressions, and the meanings generally involve a common range of concepts and feelings, and so there’s nothing to explain about why the Dutch sometimes use a diminutive in referring to the Curiosity rover, since lots of languages — maybe almost any language — might do that.”

    If you take it for granted that every language needs to be described and explained on its own terms, especially in the matter of lexical meanings, then how some other language behaves is indeed irrelevant. But if you think (as some other commenters explicitly do) that in this respect Dutch is just like German, Spanish, Italian, etc., then the question of what other languages (including English) do becomes relevant.]

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    Robert Coren: An aug-dim that I like is fettuccine (little big slices).

    Bob Ladd: Spanish, like Italian, has more than one diminutive former. The two most common ones are ito/a and illo/a. In modern Spanish, the former is productive and forms literal diminutives, while the latter generally forms words with a distinctive meaning, like almohadilla (pad, not small pillow), camilla (stretcher, not small bed), masilla (putty, not small mass),etc. But not always: a shopping cart is carrito.

  24. Natasha Warner said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

    I was thinking what Edith B. said above: it makes sense that it’s a wagentje because it’s not a regular car, it’s a special type of vehicle. Maybe most of the things that fall into the wagentje category are smaller than cars (a street sweeping truck, for example, wouldn’t be a wagentje I assume), but if the thing looks like other wagentjes apart from size (funny vehicle that wouldn’t drive on regular streets?), it gets the -tje based on semantic category regardless of size. I’m not native, but I like that explanation.
    I learned Dutch after learning German, and was surprised by the frequency of diminutives. My only comparison point is German, though. My son is an early bilingual in Dutch, now 11 years old and somewhat English-dominant, and he comments “Alles is een -tje in het Nederlands!” He’s joked before about how even the giant at a fairytale park, larger than him, must be a reusje, because it must be possible for everything to be a -tje in Dutch if you try hard enough.

  25. William Steed said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    @Gary (in regards to Chinese diminutives)

    The -er suffix is very typical of Beijing Mandarin, and yes, is frequent enough there to be almost a nominal suffix. Victor Mair has posted on some of the more extreme versions.

    It’s not used as much in southern Mandarin varieties, and pretty much not at all in Taiwan.

    In other Chinese languages, there are equivalents, surfacing as a nasal ending, or even just a change in tone (e.g. to a high tone that you don’t find anywhere else in the variety).

  26. Mark F. said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    Newspaper writing is often fairly informal, even at the WSJ (although I don’t know about its Dutch counterpart). A sentence of the form “And to think that X” is already a bit informal because of its personal tone.

    On the other hand, from the descriptions it sounds like “-je” might sometimes play a role more like “-let” than like “-kins” (if those suffixes were productive). I can imagine the word “roverlet” in English, and if there were such a word it sounds like the kind of thing that would work in even the most formal writing. But then it would seem odd to use it to refer to the largest rover yet.

  27. Frans said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 1:16 am

    @Mark F
    That particular phrasing is unique to the website. Here’s an excerpt from the physical paper on August 6:

    „Here I go”, had Curiosity even tevoren getwitterd, terwijl de transportcapsule met 20.000 kilometer per uur de atmosfeer indook. „Parachute geopend. Snelheid 1.450 kilometer per uur. Hoogte 7 kilometer. Nog vier minuten naar Mars!”, lazen de twittervolgers kort daarna.

    En inderdaad, precies volgens plan werd even later het karretje aan een takel uit de capsule neergelaten, zoals helikopters jeeps kunnen neerlaten. Met een vaartje van 0,6 meter per seconde kwam het karretje op zijn zes wielen op de Marsbodem terecht. Het duurste (2 miljard euro), zwaarste (900 kilo) en grootste (een Mini Cooper) Marswagentje moest nu op eigen kracht verder.

    Note that (just like on the website) it doesn’t only speak of a Marswagentje, but also refers to it as karretje.

    However, I don’t think I have Edith’s associations with the word wagentje, or at least not as strongly. I’d probably associate such meanings more kar or karretje. Perhaps I simply don’t talk sufficiently much about robotic vehicles, but I’ll put forward another suggestion as to why a groot Marswagentje makes perfect sense to me.

    For a motorized kind of wagen, I prototypically think of something larger than a car. For example, ziekenwagen (ambulance), bestelwagen (van), and vrachtwagen (truck). Curiosity thus feels smaller than a kleine Marswagen, while groot Marswagentje hits the mark. I’m not sure if I could extend the wagentje category to include something next to which I felt small.

  28. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 1:23 am

    Professor Liberman, I was wondering why you haven’t commented on the explanation given by the author of the original article. It seemed to make sense.

  29. c.c. said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 1:37 am

    i still am not sure why it’s so extraordinary for Dutch to use this term. in Spanish, Curiosity is referred to as a “carrito explorador” often enough. and it doesn’t mean “shopping cart” (which is the usual meaning of “carrito”) nor “cute car.”

  30. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 3:02 am

    Dutch and Swiss German are not alone when it comes to profligate use of diminutives – Austrian German is much the same. Watching my daughter learn German, it’s almost as though the diminutives are the default version of nouns and they learn to drop them later ;-)

    I suspect the reason this didn’t happen to the Mars rover is that for most German speakers, the ordinary word for car is Auto and not Wagen, and Auto does not lend itself to being diminutivized. Wägelchen (in Austria, Wagerl) is the name for a hand trolley (including shopping trolley). Also the mars explorer is generally called a Marsroboter, not a Marswagen, and as robots go, its on the big side – no urge to make it a diminutive.

  31. Nick Lamb said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 3:45 am

    “robottino” is definitely used in Italian to refer to entrants in the Robocup. The most famous (using the word loosely) Robocup robots are indeed the knee high bipedal soccer players, but there are robots in some spheres of the contest that are of similar build to an adult human, I am not sure whether such robots still attract the diminutive “robottino” in Italian.

    In any case use of a diminutive for the big/small contrast doesn’t seem to do anything here that’s different from the phrase “giant little girl” often used to describe the character from Royale Deluxe’s “The Sultan’s Elephant”. She’s clearly not a “little giant girl” nor a “giant female dwarf” or any other combination, and this is a big little car, and not in my opinion a little big car as the title would have it.

  32. Andy Averill said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 6:28 am

    Aug-dim: when I was a kid, there was a mom-and-pop grocery store down the street from me called a superette.

  33. Ø said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 7:36 am

    (Warning: Not especially relevant.)

    In English a moon rover has sometimes been called a “moon buggy”. This could have led to “Mars buggy”, but didn’t (except apparently in fiction).

    Irrelevant, because (a) “moon buggy” was inspired by “dune buggy”, and (b) “buggy” doesn’t seem to be a diminutive.

  34. GW said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 8:42 am

    This childrens’ song is a nice introduction to German diminutives, contrasting Hochdeutsch -chen with an old aunt’s -lein ending, Swabian -le and Hessian -scha: http://draketo.de/inhalt/lieder/wuermchen.html

  35. Brett said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    Ø: The difference is that the moon buggy carried a human driver. If there are people riding around in such a vehicle on Mars, I would probably expect it to be called a “Mars buggy.”

  36. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    I recall that Mark Twain, in one of his many attacks on the German language, recommended use of the diminutive when you can’t think of the proper gender. He did remark that this gave your conversation a youthful, informal tone.

  37. BPT said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    I don’t think any other language can match Brazilian Portuguese’s widespread love of diminutives, both formally and informally. The frequency of use is astounding.

  38. Gloucesterina said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    @Margriet van der Heijden said

    Yes, I’m very curious to hear how folks respond to your (the author’s) explanation of how your choice of the diminutive is intended to express the rover’s size in relation to its environment, rather than to other vehicles, as many of the comments speculate. And more than that, you’re suggesting, it offers a way for the reader to view the rover as somewhat vulnerable, and therefore brave, which is an fascinating quality to attribute to a remote controlled device. Thanks for posting!

  39. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Thank goodness, Goucesterina! I thought I must have been the only one who noticed the author’s contribution…

  40. Philip Spaelti said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    Another nice example is Mt. Kilimanjaro. The “ki-” is also a diminutive (which is apparently frequent in Swahili), so that Africa’s highest mountain is literally “Little Mount Njaro”. Maybe it’s a term of endearment?

  41. Margriet van der Heijden said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    @Edith B

    Your comment seems very much to the point. Álthough I keep liking karretje (dim.) also because it relates the size of Curiosity to its environment, I think it feels indeed natural because Curiosity falls in the ”toy car category”, so to speak.

    ”A wagentje, on the other hand, is a pram or a toy cart, or a robotic, remote-controlled kind of vehicle. A vehicle that drives around on Mars, controlled from Earth (in my mind) falls squarely into the “wagentje” category, regardless of size. Using “wagentje” in this context does not imply that it’s small or cute, and it’s not an affected/feminine/cozy use of the diminutive either. It merely identifies it as a robotic/industrial/scientific kind of vehicle. ”

  42. Sarah Proud and Tall said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    From my googling, “o carrinho robótico” (robot cart) seems to be a common diminutive term for Curiosity, or any other mobile robot, in Portuguese.

    In the Brazilian Gazeta do Povo Curiosity is the non-diminutive “o rôbo”, but it is said that it is “do tamanho de um carrinho de golfe” – the size of a golf cart-dim.

    On something called Nerd Pai, the actual Nerd Dad calls Curiosity a carrinho when talking about a Hot Wheels toy, but says that “De carrinho o Rover Curiosity não tem nada!” (Curiosity has nothing of the cart [about it]).

    I also liked “Carrinho Hot Wheels de Marte” which I saw on the twitter.

    Finally – I can hear a lonely martini calling out to me, so I must go – at the wonderfully named Uivos, Sussurros e Gritarias, I found this:

    Lá em Marte, coisa de uns 50 milhões de quilômetros longe daqui, passeia em suas terras um serzinho solitário chamado de Curiosity.

    – “Serzinho” being, so far as I can tell, a diminutive of ser (to be) meaning “being” or “little being”, and often used when speaking about babies. That post has diminutives all over the place, from “agora ele roda aos pouquinhos tirando fotos” (now he rolls, little by little, taking photos), to “jipinho” (jeep), and this at the end:

    Fiquei pensando nesse carrinho perambulando por lá, como perambulou Wall-E no filminho.

    I presume filminho means “children’s film”.

  43. R Spainhower said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    I’ve always thought that calling the Mars explorer a “rover” had a sweet, diminutive quality to it anyway. Like a Dumpster (that’s the -ster ending though), or a little kid calling a shovel a “pusher”, things like that.

  44. Bril said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 10:23 am

    ‘Marswagentje’ isn’t the only word available for explorers on Mars. A word probably used a lot more is simply ‘verkenner’ or ‘Marsverkenner’. (And I have never seen ‘verkennertje’.) ‘Marswagentje’ looks like a creative use of language in a special context. You’ve got to be close to your readers nowadays to keep them coming to your newspaper. So using informal, affect-loaded language is imperative.

    Likewise ‘volkstuintje’ isn’t the only word available for ‘allotment’ either. The non-diminutive ‘volkstuin’ is probably just as present in the language.

  45. Yosemite Semite said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 12:55 am

    The Spanish spoken in Mexico is full of diminutives, including words that in Spain never become diminutive — or maybe are impossible to make into diminutives in the Spanish morphology. Normally only nouns can take the diminutive ‘ito’/’ita’. The most widespread example, ‘ahora’, ‘now’, an adverb, can become in Mexico ‘ahorita’, ‘real soon now’.

  46. Bril said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 4:15 am

    @ Yosemite Semite

    In Dutch too it’s not just nouns which are diminutivable. Adverbs may get a diminutive ending : kalmpjes (calmly), stilletjes (quietly) … (though it does not seem to happen as freely as with nouns).

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