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.
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).
[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.]