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We build a diminutive by adding the suffix -lein or -chen. For some nouns one is preferred over the other whereas with other nouns both may be used.

Examples:

der Tisch | das Tischlein | das Tischchen
das Brot  |       -         das Brötchen
der Bach  | das Bächlein  |     -

In Hochdeutsch there is a tendency to prefer -chen whereas regionally the suffix corresponding the -lein-form (e.g. -li Swiss, -le Swabian) is used.

Apart from that, are there any rules that define which suffix to use?

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Isn't the form with "-le" the normal, non-diminutive form in Swabian? ;) –  Alexander Kosubek Oct 2 '12 at 14:10
    
Oh no, "-le" still is a diminutive in Swabia - but be careful with "Brötle" - that's a cookie and not a "Weckle" (the latter being "Brötchen") ;) –  Takkat Oct 2 '12 at 14:14
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1 Answer

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In my experience, for Hochdeutsch, "-lein" nowadays is often the exception that you would fall back to in case the more common "-chen" doesn't work, cf. "Bächlein" (because "Bächchen" would be impossible to pronounce even for native speakers).

An a/o/u vowel often changes to their corresponding umlaut:

Bach -> Bächlein

Brot -> Brötchen

Punkt -> Pünktchen

Additionally, if the last letter is a vowel, it is often omitted when forming a diminutive:

Schraube -> Schräubchen

Katze -> Kätzchen

There's also a separate diminutive "-i/-y" form mainly used with person names:

Hans -> Hansi

Fred -> Fredi

Thomas -> Tommy

Some examples of both Hochdeutsch and dialects can be found on Wikipedia

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