top of page
  • Ilinca Stroe

Proof of Endearment: Diminutive Suffixes in Romanian

Those of you who are naturally inclined to read a restaurant menu not only for nutritional purposes but also to pick on typos, misspellings and funny mistranslations [1] are probably used to seeing entries like “ciorbă de văcuţă” and “mămăliguţă cu brânză”, as in Meniu 2 in the picture.

Nothing really wrong with those, but they do make you wonder a bit: both “văcuţă” and “mămăliguţă” are based on vacă (cow) and mămăligă (polenta), to which the diminutive suffix -uţă was added.

“Why was it added?” the finicky restaurant menu reader might further wonder. Is it because the chorba is made of a little cow’s meat, instead of a grown-up one’s? Or might it be that the portion of mămăliguţă is tiny, as opposed to a fully satisfying one of mămăligă?

Nothing of that, we can assure you from the very beginning. You can safely order ciorba de văcuţă and mămăliguţa cu brânză and you shall not walk away famished: they’re full portions made with proper meat and proper polenta. It’s just that we use what we call diminutive to refer to stuff.

Diminutive are words with diminutive suffixes, and apparently English has got about 50 such suffixes, as in laddie, booklet, kitchenette, kiddo, puppy, etc., as well as in names (Charlie, Bobby). [2] In English they can mean “little” (as in duckling), can carry disparaging connotations (like poetaster), or can express endearment (as in mommy).

Similarly, in Romanian we use diminutive suffixes to refer to small things (for example, a scăunel, as opposed to a scaun, is a little chair), or to make fun of under-accomplished professionals (an actoraş is an actor who has pretty much failed to impress, as opposed to a really respected and talented actor).

But we also use diminutive, moreover, like other Romance-language speakers (most notably the Spaniards, who in colloquial speech use about three diminutives per sentence, with all those fajitas, burritos and pitillos), to “sweeten” or tone down a message, to put things euphemistically. In other words, when we want to avoid sounding brusque or bossy, when we want to accommodate the other person, to make our interlocutor feel at ease.

Let’s just assume, for example, that someone owes us money. If we want to find out when they can pay it back to us, it’s possibly rude and confrontational to ask them, “Când îmi poţi da banii?” (“When can you give me the money?”) Instead, it’s a lot friendlier and more accommodating to ask, “Când îmi poţi da bănuţii?”

Above all, the diminutive can express that little extra that words can’t always express: love. In many lovely small ways. For instance, you can simply let someone know, “Ţi-am adus flori” (“I brought you flowers”), but you should know that it’s actually “Ţi-am adus floricele” that warms up hearts instantly. You can ask your partner, “Dă-mi mâna” (“Give me your hand”), but it’s actually “Dă-mi mânuţa” that expresses deep intimacy and familiarity and endearment.

Granted, in corporate contexts you don’t really need to come across as a tremendously endearing character. But at times you do need to encourage a co-worker in a contained yet supportive way, to let them know - economically, minimalistically - that you back them. In such situations diminutives, with the right supporting intonation, come in handy: “Hai, Dănuţa!” (“Come on, Dana!) At the end of the day, diminutive suffixes with names (Dan – Dăn, Simona – Simonica, Alina – Alinuţa, Radu – Răducu [3]) can simply let people know that you care about them.

Last but not least, a friendly warning: don’t overuse diminutive. Compare “M-am dus în parc cu copilul să se dea în leagăne” (“I went to the park with the kid so he can go on the swings”) with “M-am dus în părculeţ cu copilaşul să se dea în legănuţe”. The latter phrasing, with its three diminutive suffixes, is simply too ticklish: it makes people laugh and nobody will take you seriously, if you say that. So use endearment wisely. :)

P.S.: And to the picky restaurant menu readers: why “ciorbă de văcuţă” and “mămăliguţă cu brânză”, after all? Well, first because we love our food. And then because the public place where you can eat a portion of “mămăliguţă”, instead of “mămăligă”, becomes a cosy homey space. It’s just a small way in which restaurant menus can make you feel at home.

Notes & Sources

[1] On Romanian restaurant menus, some examples are “stomach soup” instead of “tripe soup”, and “grilled chicken chest” or “grilled chicken breast” – God knows which one’s better, but the latter, non-grilled, is certainly a malformation (pectus carinatum).

Picture credits

2,660 views0 comments


bottom of page