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I know 儿 can be a diminutive suffix, and can convey endearment or smallness but when used as a suffix for 这 to change the meaning from ‘this’ to ‘here’ I don’t think this applies. (Same with 那 changing the meaning from ‘that’ to ‘there’.) In this instance, what is the 儿 actually denoting?

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儿 denotes nominalisation, ie a nominal instance of the preceding character.

A nominal instance of what is already a noun will often imply a diminutive connotation of said noun (eg 猫儿, kitten).

But a nominal instance of a part of speech that's not already a noun will quite simply imply nominalisation. A verb like "eat" (吃) will simply become "food; something to eat" (吃儿). A demonstrative, like 这 in your question, will simply become a locative (ie a noun of location), like "here" (这儿).

The fact that the nominalisation of a demonstrative should be a locative is pretty logical (and lexically apparent in many other languages). If you think about it, the meaning of a demonstrative implies location, because its meaning is "the [thing] that is here/there". Now, if a demonstrative serves to denote location in a pronominal or attributive sense like that, then it makes sense that the nominalisation of the demonstrative through 儿 will simply denote a nominal instance of that location, ie just "here/there".

Please note that in dialects of Chinese that do not employ 儿 as a nominaliser in that way, an explicitly locative suffix is used to mean "here/there" (ie 这/那+里). Since the 儿-nominalisation of a demonstrative produces a locative, as I argue above, the two forms (这/那+里 & 这/那+儿) are meaningfully equivalent.

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The 儿 in 这儿, similar to its presence in some other scenarios like 一份儿菜, or 村儿里, or 我的事儿 etc, is mostly a regional accent related suffix.

In the north of the country, it would be much more common to have the 儿 appended to certain words, but in the south of the country, it's often not used. A very obvious giveaway if someone is from the south / Taiwan region would be when they say 我这里 (often said as Wo-Ze-Li as well). It would be very rare for them saying this in their 普通话 adding a 儿.

To be clear, 儿 serves no grammatical or linguistic purpose in these cases.

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  • Incidentally, if you hear someone say 密码儿 instead of 密码, they are likely from Tianjin. Even old Beijingers wouldn't be saying it like that!
    – David Min
    Aug 16, 2022 at 11:31
  • Like everything sense in grammar, I should think 儿 serves some kind of linguistic purpose, even if not grammatical. But I for one would say its purpose is grammatical, ie to mark noun status. This is illustrated by the fact that it's appended to nouns rather than verbs (you can say 画画儿, but not 画儿画, because 儿 is there to mark out the noun). You could argue that such a grammatical marker is redundant in Chinese (and in fact it isn't found in most dialects), but some dialects do use it for the grammatical purposes of marking out some nouns, whether for clarity or for a diminuitive effect.
    – Sanchuan
    Aug 16, 2022 at 12:45
  • In your example, the fact that 画画 and 画画儿 has no difference in meaning, and both express exactly the same idea, would lend me to say 儿 indeed has no linguistic purpose. It's also not true that it only applies to nouns - north western dialect could say 紧绷绷的 as 紧绷绷儿的. I would find the idea that different dialects apply different grammatical logic hard to accept.
    – David Min
    Aug 16, 2022 at 14:16
  • 儿 may be semantically redundant, but redundant features aren't without purpose or they wouldn't be redundant (ie we wouldn't be able to say that their purpose is served elsewhere in the sentence). Equally, 儿 distribution may be random across the lexicon (and indeed geography) but its emergence must have a functional origin.
    – Sanchuan
    Aug 16, 2022 at 18:20
  • Grammatically, that the 儿 suffix denotes instances of nouns, often or originally in a diminuitive sense, isn't an opinion but an established fact of Chinese grammar, as rightly acknowledged in the premise of the question itself and illustrated in any dictionary as well as in the examples given above. The presence or absence of certain grammatical features across different dialects can hardly be said to affect the overall grammatical logic of the language.
    – Sanchuan
    Aug 16, 2022 at 18:24
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这儿 = 这里/裡/裏 (here) 汉典

那儿 = 那里/裡/裏 (there) 汉典

Note:

Here, 这儿 & 那儿 are "dialectal sysnonms" of 这里 & 那里. It shouldn't be confused with "儿化" of the word immediately in front of 儿, which mostly occurs in the northern dialects, such as 花ㄦ,草ㄦ,牛ㄦ,羊ㄦ,狗ㄦ. Here, the adding of ㄦ does not change the meaning of the word proceeds it but adds "r" sound to the proceeding word, for instance, 花ㄦ(huar) = 花(hua). https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%84%A6

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  • It's easy to think that 儿 is just a phonetic reduction of the suffix 里, but I personally believe that to consider the use 儿 as a nominaliser is necessary and sufficient to explain 这/那/哪+儿, especially in the absence of any other lexical example where 里 is pronounced like that. (Can you think of any other instance of the locative suffix 里 reduced to 儿? 家里? 村里? ) The two forms you mention (这儿 = 这里, etc) are simply equivalent because a nominal suffix that turns a demonstrative into a locative will naturally be equivalent to the more standard practice of straight-up using a locative suffix instead.
    – Sanchuan
    Aug 16, 2022 at 7:37

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