Yesterday, I finished watching Devil Beside You – which, quite possibly, might be the last Taiwanese drama I’ll ever watch. For reasons I won’t go into here. Heh.
Anyway, I watched DBY with little to no knowledge of Chinese, other than basic “A is B”-type sentences so I was intrigued by the way the characters addressed each other. Why did everyone call Jiang Meng “Ahmeng”? Why was Yuan Yi so offended when Ahmeng called him “Ahyi”? Why did Qi Yue’s friends alternatively call her Qi Yue and Xiao Yue? Why was Yuan Yi the only one who called Qing Zi “Xiao Zi”? You see what I’m getting at.
Well, I kind of figured out through context that ah (阿) and xiao (小) were diminutives, basically forms of words (usually names though they can be other nouns) that are used to signify either smallness or endearment/intimacy. In fact, in Chinese xiao (小) actually means “small.” What is interesting is that some languages, like English, do not have a strict way of forming diminutives while other languages, like Chinese, Korean, and Japanese do.
A lot of diminutives for proper names English (i.e. nicknames) end with an “-ie” sound. Examples: Christine = Christie; Samantha = Sammy. Some other nouns follow this pattern as well, like cat = kitty. But English doesn’t really have set rules for forming diminutives of proper nouns (nicknames just are what they are, I suppose).
Indian languages (e.g. Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, etc.)
Of course, I can’t forget to address my own native language… Most Indian names have diminutives ending in a u (or sometimes ee or ya) sound, unless they are very short. Since Indian names are usually quite long, the nickname is most commonly the first syllable + u. Examples: Ramachandran = Ramu; Ashwini = Ashu; Namrata = Namu. BUT names like Satya, Puja, Meera, don’t usually change.
I have to say, however, unlike English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, Indian diminutives are almost always reserved for very close family members and sometimes very very close family friends. Of course, a degree of familiarity is a prerequisite for nickname use in all cultures… but I just feel that most Indian people would not have even their closest friends call them using their diminutive nickname. It’s almost always reserved for parents and grandparents; and once you get older, people tend to leave it off anyway. (As an example, my mom and dad call me by my childhood nickname but my aunts and uncles do not. Incidentally, you might be able to guess what that nickname is from what I’ve said here!)
Suffixes like kun (くん) and chan (ちゃん) are usually added to male and female names respectively to make them diminutive. Sometimes ちゃん can be added to other nouns to make them sound “cute” (e.g. 猫ちゃん = kitty)
Like Chinese and Japanese, Korean has a pretty standard way of forming proper name diminutives – add 아 (ah) at the end of names ending in a consonant and 야 (yah) at the end of a name ending in a vowel. In the case of Korean (though not in the other languages I’ve mentioned), this diminutive is also the vocative case – this is basically the form of the proper noun that you use to call a person. In most languages, the diminutive and can be used either as the vocative case or not but in Korean, the 아/야 diminutive MUST also be the vocative case. Korean also has a diminutive that is not vocative – for names ending in consonants, you can add 이 (i). This is how I understand it:
- 혜원이가 김밥을 먹는다. (O)
[Adding 이 to 혜원 makes it diminutive but it’s still nominative – meaning, it’s the subject of the sentence and therefore marked by the subject marking particle]
- 혜원아, 김밥을 먹어라. (O)
[Adding 아 to 혜원 makes the diminutive now vocative – meaning you are calling Hyewon to come eat kimbap.]
- 혜원이, 김밥을 먹어라. (X…?)
[Now that I think about it, I wonder if this is really wrong? It sounds odd to me and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say something like this. Hm.]
- 혜원아 김밥을 먹는다. (X)
[This is definitely wrong because you only use 아 when you’re calling someone, not when that person is the subject of a sentence]
Whoops, sorry for the grammar overload. I just find stuff like this interesting. One of my favorite things to watch in Korean dramas is when 2 characters go from addressing someone as “so-and-so 씨” or by the full name to the diminutive. I remember feeling all giddy at the end of Full House when 영재 addresses 지은 as “한지은.. 지은아…”
Just another thing I enjoy about the Korean language, I guess.