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Economic and Social History Blog

43. A little blogje about a tiny issue (15-5-2020)

A little blogje about a tiny issue (15-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

It was wonderful to spend a few days on Texel this week. There were hardly any tourists, we could walk for hours without meeting anybody, and it seemed as if there were much more birds to watch than usual – as if they had lost their shyness and felt masters of the terrain usually dominated by big and loud homo sapiens. We saw many small, charming birds, like roodborstjes, kneutjes, puttertjes, paapjes, baardmannetjes – well, officially we saw roodborst, kneu, putter, paap, baardman. There is this committee linked to Sovon (the network of birdwatchers of the Netherlands) which makes the official list of bird names, and in the past 20 years or so they have gradually eliminated the ‘tje’ from the bird names – even tiny ‘goudhaantje’ is officially ‘goudhaan’ now. They think the diminutive belittles the bird in question, and who are we to consider the goudhaan a small bird? By the standards of the goudhaan (and of the vuurgoudhaan) the bird is not little at all!

I am not going to complain about this Commissie Systematiek Nederlandse Avifauna (CSNA). It is probably part of life – and apparently also of birdlife – that committees such as this one exist and determine official names (or whatever they determine). What is perhaps more interesting is the question why so many bird names end with ‘tje’, why, more generally, diminutives are so popular in Dutch. In English, for example, there are hardly any and they are not used much; in German they do exist and are used frequently, but Dutch easily beats neighbouring languages in this respect. There is a huge variety of them and we use them a lot. A journalist noticed that the prime minister recently called all his speeches ‘toespraakjes’, and used other diminutives very frequently as well.  Another striking aspect is that in many languages diminutives are matched by augmentatives (which ‘enlarge’ the object), but in Dutch they are scarce and seldom used (Wikipedia mentions keihard and steenrijk, perhaps not the best examples). In  Dutch it is even usual to top up the diminutives with a ‘klein’: ‘kleine kindertjes’ is not unusual at all.

I could not find the kind of literature that discusses the reasons why we like such suffixes so much. But the key is probably that the ‘tje’ does not only mean that the object is little, but it adds an emotion as well. A ‘paapje’ (to return to the birds) is not only a small ‘paap’ (literally, a catholic – strange name anyway), but a small, charming ‘paap’. Paap in itself is not a charming word at all; it is derived from the Dutch word for the pope, and has a negative connotation. But in combination with the ‘tje’ is becomes a charming, mild word. So the suffix often adds softness to the language. It may also add irony and understatement. In the Late Middle Ages the ‘middelnederlands’ was already full of diminutives – so this tradition is probably as old as the language itself – and it was used a lot to mock authority. Van de Vos Reijnaarde – a fable which makes fun of power of king, ministers and administrators – uses diminutives in this way (then the (Flemish) ‘kijn’ suffix dominated, only later was it replaced by the Hollandish ‘tje’). The ironic quality of the suffix is related to the fact that it turns the assessment upside down: a ‘leuk jongetje’ will be used to describe a terrible teenager. Irony and charm appear already in the Middle Ages to be the main messages of the suffix. Rutte’s ‘toespraakjes’ are part of this long tradition; he expresses his embarrassment of being so powerful in corona-days in this subtle way – by literally belittling his own contribution.

The essence of the Dutch ‘tje’ is not what it tells you about size, but it adds a sentiment – irony, elegance. The Commissie Systematiek Nederlandse Avifauna did not really understand this part of the name-giving, that the addition of ‘tje’ makes the ‘paap’ into the elegant name the charming bird deserves.

Continue reading: The Dutch version of 20th-century depressions (18-5-2020)