Diminutive Endings

Diminutive noun endings in German are used for a smaller version of something, or just to communicate cuteness, informality or affection. We don't have many diminutive endings in English, and the ones we do have are usually just a matter of size, without the other connotations: for example, let as in "piglet" or "booklet." There are many different diminutive endings in regional German dialects, some of which you've already heard -- like the li in muesli cereal or the el in Hansel & Gretel. But there are only two in standard German: chen and lein. You need to remember three main things about chen and lein:
  • they always make the noun neuter;
  • they never change in the plural; and
  • they usually add an umlaut to the base word when they can
Here are a few examples:
der Tisch table das Tischlein small table die Tischlein small tables
die Maus mouse das Mäuschen (cute) little mouse die Mäuschen (cute) little mice
das Brot bread das Brötchen bread roll die Brötchen bread rolls
There are a few common diminutives in German where the base word has fallen out of use, but they still follow the above rules. Two examples are das Märchen (fairy tale, "little story") and das Mädchen (girl, "little maid"). It's possible to take things too far: even some native speakers find expressions like Hallöchen (for Hallo) or Alles Klärchen (for Alles Klar, "understood") to be overly cute or ditzy. Some nouns can take either chen or lein, but for others, one is more standard than the other. There's no clear rule for this, but you shouldn't be making up your own diminutives anyway. It's more a matter of recognizing them when you see or hear them.