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In alphabetical languages, diminutives are easily made by adding a suffix (e.g. -ito, -ino, -ine, which belong to some Romance languages) and sometimes contemporaneously changing the ending of the original name.

Japanese uses a sort of appending naming, such as "-chan", "-kun", etc.

But what about Chinese? Are there rules when forming diminutives, or what's the usual way?

I'm interested in:

  1. what characters for diminutives exist;
  2. who can they be used with
  3. when not to use them.

As you might have noticed, I am not talking about nicknames, but rather about diminutives.

EDIT: Like Szabolcs said, I'm not asking for honorifics but rather about those changes in names that show affection, intimacy or close relation. Please, read this page on Wikipedia in your language so you understand what is meant by Diminutive.

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  • Are you asking how to call someone that you are familiar with? since you mentioned ちゃん and 君 in Japanese.
    – Huang
    Jan 14, 2012 at 12:34
  • I suppose so... If there is a difference in using diminutives for familiar vs non-familiar people then I'd like to know both! :)
    – Alenanno
    Jan 14, 2012 at 13:02
  • This is the first time I've seen the word "diminutive". I cannot understand the suffixes you gave in "alphabetical languages". I know "-chan" "-kun", however I don't think I can get the meaning for only these two suffixes. So would you please give a (brief) explanation about what a diminutive is?
    – fefe
    Jan 14, 2012 at 14:06
  • For example in Spanish: Alejandro -> Alejandrito. Or in Italian: Giacomo —> Giacomino. See this definition of Diminutive on the OALD.
    – Alenanno
    Jan 14, 2012 at 14:13
  • I think you should explain what a diminutive is. From the answers I can tell most people do not know this (the answers are not about diminutives). That's probably because English doesn't really have diminutives. The closest thing in Chinese that I know of is doubling single-character given names, but then I'm a beginner.
    – Szabolcs
    Jan 14, 2012 at 17:12

6 Answers 6

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This is a broad question. You will use different words depending on different situations.

To call someone that you are familiar with (note: this is the premise). There are several different cases.

  1. For kids: In general, the parents will give their kids a diminutive, besides the formal name.The diminutive may have different forms so that you can't find a rule.

    I have a niece with the diminutive of "小鱼儿 (literally means: little fish)". This name has nothing to do with her given name, but it is related (I think) to her surname "余 (has the same pronunciation with 鱼)"

    One of my friends has "俊" as the last character of his given name, so his grandpa calls him "俊俊". This "XX" form is very common. Note, his grandpa(from a grandpa's view, he is always a kid) can call him this way while I should not(for me, he is an adult, not a kid).

  2. For adults. user334's answer is good (point 1 and 2). However, there are some details I want to point out.

    If the listener is very old (60 above, very rough, no precise definition), and you are young. It's not polite to call him "老+surname". You would:

    call him "surname+叔" or "surname+叔叔" for a man.

    call her "surname+姨" pr "surname+阿姨" for a man.

    ...when they are in the same generation as your parents. Or,

    call him "surname+爷爷" for a man

    call him "surname+奶奶" for a woman

    ...when they are in the same generation as your grandparents.

    Besides, you could call an old (in the same generation as your grandparents) man or woman "surname + 老" to show your high respect. This form is very formal and not used usually.

  3. For adult in the same generation as you:

    "阿+surname" or "阿+last character of the given name" are often used. Yes, my friends would call me 阿黄, but not all of them call me this way (just call me with the full name).

    "小+last character of the given name" could also be used(less common).

    “仔" as in user334's answer, is popular in Guangdong, Fujian provinces and HongKong, Macau and Taiwan, I think. More presicesly, it's popular in the 粤 and 闽 dialects.

    You could also use "surname+兄" to call a man older than you. Ok, you could call me "黄兄" :D

    You could use "given name" to call a man if his given name contains two characters.

    Also, among familiar friends, they generally would call each other with nicknames to make things funny. When I was in the university, some of my classmates called me "大黄". Oh, that's not a good name, but funny, because "大黄" is a kind of Chinese herbal medicine.

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A form of "小"+Surname can be used, like 小王 小李.

Also we can call elder person (not superior, but the same or lower level) with "老"+Surname: "老王" "老李".

This form will not be adopted if the surname has two syllables (not very common in China now).

And note "大" CANNOT be used.

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  • 老 is a kind of honorific particle, right? For teachers for example... And is 小 used for both sexes? Could you make a sort of overview about: what diminutives are there, who can they be used with, something like this :D Sorry, I didn't make it clear in my question... I'll edit it.
    – Alenanno
    Jan 14, 2012 at 11:59
  • Can you give an example? I do not think 老 is a honorific particle that can be used for teacher. We would NEVER use 老 for teachers. If you are talking about 老师, that's one word and cannot be split into 老+师. And yes, 小 can be used for both sexes.
    – fefe
    Jan 14, 2012 at 12:03
  • I see, I think I confused a bit there, forget it... :D See the edit in my question or in my comment. :)
    – Alenanno
    Jan 14, 2012 at 12:03
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  1. For men:

    • elder than you: 老+'family name'. For example: 老+王. it's ok to use this even you're the same age.
    • younger than you: 小+'family name'. For example: 小+王. esp. leader calls his subordinate.
  2. For women:

    • elder than you: 'family name'+ 姐. For example: 王+姐. It's not good to use ‘老’ for women. Just as you should not ask a woman how old she is.
    • younger than you: the same as man. You can call 小王 (xiaowang) for a young lady.
  3. Some other usage for men:

    • '阿'+ firstname, like: 阿强 (if you're at almost the same age and very familiar,you can find this in runfa chow 's films)
    • firstname + '仔', like: 伟仔 (people call the Hong Kong film star Liang Chaowei like this).
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  • Isn't 小姐 also used for women? Or is it another usage?
    – Alenanno
    Jan 14, 2012 at 15:05
  • @Alenanno Historically, 小姐 is a good word to call a unmarried woman. Nowadays, you can use this word for a woman(no matter she is single or married). It's formal. BUT in ordinary life, I strongly suggest you ask the woman if you can call her with that word first, because 小姐 could mean VERY BADLY in slang. 女士 could be a good alternative, but remember, 小姐 and 女士 are not used to call a familiar woman.
    – Huang
    Jan 14, 2012 at 15:26
  • @Huang Ah you're right! Now I remember :)
    – Alenanno
    Jan 14, 2012 at 15:28
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Adding to already informative existing answers. Another recent trend of honorific is 董 dong (for both Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese), no literal meaning as it is fragmented but indicate meaning as 'boss'.

You use this in conjunction with a surname. For example 陳董 chen dong to refer someone as 'Boss Chen'.

This honorific was widely popularised when referring to a successful Taiwanese singer (now actor, director, screenwriter) Jay Chou (周杰倫 or 周杰伦 in Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese respectively where he was often referred to as 周董 Zhou Dong as indication of respect to his success.

Today, this honorific often seen within pop culture where one refer to another as 董 dong as a respect.

This seems to only applicable to male even though the word 董 dong contains no gender indication, hence in theory you should still able to use this honorific on a female.

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  • Welcome to this site! I am very happy to see more and more people coming here. Thanks for your answer, however, I don't think it good. 董 in your answer is not a diminutive. I don't mean to criticize you and I hope you can give more good answers in the future. Also, I want to point out that 董 is the abbreviaton of "董事长(Chairman of the Board)";that's why it means "boss".
    – Huang
    Jan 17, 2012 at 14:33
  • Thank you for pointing it out. Been a native, I'm looking forward to learn even more through StackExchange! According to definition of 'diminutive' means "Extremely or unusually small", so should I understand usage of diminutive as giving 'kid/pet name' rather than 'nickname'? If that's the case, then wouldn't the usage of 老 be consider as inaccurate?
    – Trav L
    Jan 18, 2012 at 22:35
  • @Huang, In addition, I agree with you that once "董 is the only abbreviation of 董事长", however that is no longer the case thanks to misleading influence of Taiwanese pop culture. To my knowledge, there is no strict set of rules on when someone is applicable for 董 usage: you use it as you are giving someone a nickname.
    – Trav L
    Jan 18, 2012 at 22:42
  • diminutive here means "爱称" or "昵称", so I understand the question as how to call people that you are familiar with. because of the different cultures between China and the west, I don't think we can find a precise or universal answer. As to the character "董",I only heard of this usage for some stars, but I think that's because they have their own studios and thus can be considered as 董.in Taiwan, can you use this for anyone that you are familiar with?
    – Huang
    Jan 19, 2012 at 0:29
  • @Huang base on observation of Internet culture, yes. honorific expression "董" has been used as a diminutive to 'nickname' someone.
    – Trav L
    Jan 30, 2012 at 7:00
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Just want to say that I noticed from watching dramas that ‘er seems to be a diminutive I hear a lot in Mandarin Chinese for parents to call their children (Song would become Song’er for example). English does have diminutives, by the way. Using y at the end of a name/nickname for example is a very common English diminutive, e.g. Robby or Bobby (Robert/Rob), Sammy (Samantha/Sam), Ally (usually Allison or Alexandra), Penny (Penelope), Willy or Billy (William), etc. The literal meaning of diminutive given in one of the comments is confusing. Yes, diminutives can be added to words to literally denote a smaller size (I.e. cat in Spanish, gato, gets the “ito” diminutive added to form the word kitten, gatito), but generally when we discuss diminutives in a linguistic sense it’s a way to change words to show affection or cuteness. Hence the nicknames example in English.

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just to add some not yet mentioned:

doubling one of the characters in a name, especially the last one.

Adding a character for relationship, to show big brother, little sister, junior, or coworker. don't dismiss these as honorifics. they can be used in polite speech sometimes but can also be used very casually/intimately. for example a wife could call her husaband with a big brother suffix on his name.

Also note that chinese people can end up with nicknames that aren't based on their real name, just like in english someone might have a nickname "smalls" or "lil' bug"

here is an actual article on these nickname trends. Its not perfect-- which terms are common or the exact implication of a term will be different in different places. However its has a good amount of them. I figure one direct article is better than these sporadic comments where we all remember one and forget the second etc.

the article:

https://www.mandarinblueprint.com/blog/chinese-nicknames/

Final comment-- some areas will actually use the name itself with no changes as a form of intimacy. in other areas its kind of weird and even the closest people like parents/spouse won't do it. So again, these things are all very varied (so punny).

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