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I've often heard some of my German friends use the ending "-chen" when talking, in an informal manner. For example, "Hallöchen", "Kärtchen", "Liebchen", etc ... Formally one would say "Hallo/Guten Tag" and etc ... I'm just curious why some of the words can be informally said in such a manner.

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-chen is a diminutive suffix of German (along with others like -lein or dialectal -le).

It can be used whenever you want to belittle a word, be it because the entity it refers to is actually cute, be it as a stylistic device.

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  • nonsense, any new such construction would count as neologism subject to the scruttiny of peers. You cannot expect it to be classy and everyone to accept it. It's all sp phonetically unviable with many words. – vectory Jun 18 '20 at 18:22
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    @vectory Excuse me? It's not nonsense that you can use -chen with basically every noun, e.g., Kommentärchen. Furthermore, it's not apparent in which kind of peer groups words derived by a productive pattern need to be "classy" or "accepted" (maybe even approved by the language police?). I'm also not aware of any phonetical restrictions to this pattern, forms like Büchelchen and Sächelchen aren't even what you call "neologisms". – amadeusamadeus Jun 18 '20 at 19:16
  • You can; doesn't mean you should. That often means you cannot. It's different if the form already existed, not a "new construction" (my words). I'd still count Sächelchen as neologism, but that's besides the point. By the way: "to belittle" is very negatively connotated. I'm not sure if that was your intent, and it would even work with every word to make it worth less, to be denigrating about it, but the classic examples that were given are more subtle. Depending on context, Liebchen means quite the opposite, simply. Hence I might have missed the subtlety of your answer. – vectory Jun 18 '20 at 20:25
  • While this answer is correct in the given context, not all nouns ending on -chen are diminutives. Ex: Bachen, Lachen, Nachen. – Richard Neumann Jun 30 '20 at 14:30
  • @RichardNeumann Sure, only if -chen is actually one suffix/morpheme by itself (as I wrote). In your examples, the written representation <chen> is not a distinct affix but part of another or several morpheme(s): Bache-n (root + plural marker), Lach-en (root + infinitive marker), Nachen (root). – amadeusamadeus yesterday
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As amadeusamadeus points out, the suffix "chen" gives the diminutive form of a noun. But that is not the whole story.

  1. There are some nouns like "Mädchen" which are no diminutives. Note that this example is etymologically a diminutive form of "Magd" (maid), but is no longer understood as a diminutive. It means "girl" or "maid". Another example is "Liebchen" which is not the diminutive form of "Liebe" but means "sweetheart" or "darling". It may also have a negative connotation ("Verbrecherliebchen").

  2. "Hallöchen" is a joke form for "Hallo". It is not really a diminutive because "Hallo" is not a noun. An extreme variant is "Hallöchen Popöchen" which is used by some people who believe it is witty but which actually gets on the nerves of their audience.

  3. Some formal diminutives change the meaning of the original noun. For example, "Freundchen" is not a little friend, but it is used if you wag your finger to other people. A similar example is "Bürschchen".

You see that there are various reasons for the occurence of the ending "chen". In most cases it indicates that something is a small (Haus / Häuschen) or not full-grown specimen (Katze / Kätzchen). It may also be used as an affectionate form. In other cases it is just a joke. And there are cases where the "chen" is an intrinsic part of a word and does not belittle something else.

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  • I'm confused, those points 1 and 2 make little sense. Those are indeed diminutives, why do you discount them as "only" etymologically a diminutive? Liebchen sounds rather antiquated but since I can full well refer to "meine große Liebe" when referring to my darling, I don't see why you so readily discount it as diminutive. The purpose of it is simply to sound more endearing. In point 2 you claim "Hallo" to not be a noun, which is wrong. It's das Hallo when used as a noun. So grammatically Hallöchen may not be strictly correct [1], but still ... – 0xC0000022L Jun 16 '20 at 10:54
  • [1] ... not strictly correct when used as a greeting ... but "Schönes Wochenende" also implies to wish someone a nice weekend, even if it's not uttered as "Ich wünsche Dir/Ihnen ein schönes Wochenende". – 0xC0000022L Jun 16 '20 at 10:56
  • @0xC0000022L Wenn wir jemanden begrüßen, benutzen wir nicht das Substantiv "Hallo", sondern die Interjektion "hal­lo". Das Substantiv "Hallo" ist die "Substantivierung" der Interjektion. Die Diminutivbildung "hallöchen" behandelt die Interjektion irrtümlicherweise als ein Substantiv. – Tsundoku Jun 16 '20 at 11:24
  • @0xC0000022L I am not a linguist, thus some of my statements may be wrong. Nevertheless I think that "Mädchen" is no longer understood as a diminuitive - what be the noun whose diminutive it is? And you can of course use "er/sie ist meine Liebe", but I don't think "er/sie ist mein Liebchen" is understood as a diminutive. The noun "Liebe" in its usual interpretation does definitely not have a content-related diminutive. The word "hallo" is usually occurs as an interjection and in my opinion nobody thinks that "hallöchen" is a small "hallo". – Paul Frost Jun 16 '20 at 11:24
  • @0xC0000022L On the other hand, "hallöchen" resembles "Tachchen" which supports your explanation. Anyway, both are not used to denote a small variant, but are intended to be witty. – Paul Frost Jun 16 '20 at 11:30
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These could be different endings. Something being labeled diminutive is a good indicator that the original function had been lost. I believe there's no good complete etymology for this suffix. The question why people perceive diminutives would be for a linguist to answer. So the question is entirely too broad.

One notable influence at least might be usage in names, that are not regular parts of speech, but colloquially given and thus potentially irregular, from there taken on to proper nouns, etc., etc.

For hallo ~ hallöchen, the etymology is not clear. French hola could have la as determiner, cp. hey there; Middle English hey lo might be explained from "look"--when and if this k elided, it would have resembled -gh ~ -ch, the -n might be excrescent, thus a low German form; euch "you" as a vocative determiner can be seen in Hallo euch. Old High German hat holan as verb; it's not necessarily that this had been used exclusively in imperative hola!. The ending -en gives it a kind of nominative plural aspect (cp. Grüße, mit freundlichen Grüßen although one could understand grüße dein Vectory "sincerly yours" also as imperative, "greet me"). Hallöle (*-le also often diminutive) might be from like, likewise (whence -lich, En. adverbial -ly; cp further Latin alis). One can only speculate.

There might also be remnants of an old dual, in spirit. The grammatical dual dumber is explained very well by @Schölnast here.

So, all these might be regional and colloquial. This should count as a general example. Sometimes the diminutive may be constructed intentionally (perhaps for Liebchen, but I wouldn't be), probably in the majority of cases today, but this option might obscure older roots. For the usual speaker who simply reitterates heard idioms, like me, without any indepth study of the etymology, it depends all on context.

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  • Die Downvotes sind mir unverständlich, aber wundern nutzt nichts. – Paul Frost Jun 19 '20 at 14:56

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