Crossing Cultures - Diminutive

We like being given the recognition we feel we deserve. It is not uncommon for our children to start asserting their “grown-upness” at a young age, reminding us parents that they are now X years old and don’t need our help with the task or decision under discussion. This continues throughout life, when we get our hackles up should someone insinuate that we are less than we actually are, whether it refers to age (college kids coming home during the summer?), job status (fetching coffee for the boss?), or a variety of other facets of life. 

Then we moved to Peru. Once I got to where I understood most of the words people were saying (even if I didn’t know what they meant), I heard an ending tacked on to almost anything. Every- thing was …ita and …ito. This is referred to as the diminutive end- ing. It just sounds condescending, doesn’t it? For those with no Spanish background, it serves to convey a different connotation on the word to which it is added. 

One of the most common is to add it onto someone’s name. This can imply two things. The first is to communicate the age of the person. For example, we most often hear Cora called Corita. It just means they are saying,“Hi, Little Cora.” Or, in families where members share names between generations, Carlos would be the elder and Carlitos would be the younger. Thus, it serves a very practical purpose. For a more emotional use, adding it onto the name of a friend or family member is a way to express a fondness for that person beyond mere acquaintance. Calling a parent Papito or Mamita is a way to say Daddy or Mommy rather than Father or Mother. When someone greets me as Larissita, I perceive additional affection from them at that moment, as if they had called me Dear Larissa, or something along those lines. 

This was difficult for me to adjust to, as it seemed belittling to my American way of thinking. Why would it be a kindness to speak to me in childish words? I have had to learn to hear the care in such statements so that I can appropriately acknowledge the gesture that others are making. 

Beyond personal address, the diminutive pops up EVERYWHERE. They use it freely, not unlike we use “a little” in lots of situations. What would you like to drink? A little tea (tecito) would be nice. Do you have a little lotion (cremita)? You’ll just feel a little pull (jalita). Wait just a moment (momentito). I’d like a little bite (bocadito). Look at that little puppy (perrito). It has permeated the culture and is a very real and necessary aspect of learning not only to speak the language, but to use it to communicate in Peruvian ways.