At the Wording Desk
Notes on a Slavic diminutive k-suffix as in vodka and babushka
One of the many fascinating diminutives in Russian is a /k/ suffix, giving nominative nouns in -ko and -ka. In Russian one may diminutivize adjectives and adverbs and who knows what else, but that is for another day.
Vodka водка [ˈvotkə] the alcoholic Russian drink means literally ‘little water.’ Russian voda ‘water’ root вод- + -k, a diminutive Slavic suffix + -a, a feminine noun ending. Note that suffixal -k has other semantic functions in Russian.
Why little water? Because the liquor is distilled. It is of less liquid volume at the end of its distillation process than when it begins as a grain or potato mash before fermentation. The first use of the word in older Russian is in a noun phrase that means “vodka of grain wine” and an older Russian name for vodka was хлебное (chlebnoi) вино (vino) ‘grain wine .’
Comparative Etymology in Indo-European & Perhaps Beyond?
Vota/Wota is the Russian word for water, and, as you can see, vota is cognate with our English word water. Both words stem from a Proto-Indo-European root like *wed which is productive of hundreds of water words in a variety of related languages: German Wasser, Swedish vatten, Sanskrit udan, Latin unda ‘wave’, Greek hudor (giving English all its hydro- words), and Hittite watar. Is the root strictly Indo-European? Or was it borrowed or shared with other language families. Consider the similar Arabic word oued/wadi ‘river’ and the hieroglyphic Egyptian hua ‘water’ (a guttural h-sound) with its sonic similarity to Latin aqua ‘water’ whose earliest Roman reflex may have been, as Eric Partridge speculates, a form like the unattested *waqua.
More Russian –Ka Forms
Consider –ka’s simple use as diminutive and either affectionate or neutral, but not pejorative, as in Russian words like американка americanka ‘American girl’ and монголка mongolka ‘Mongolian girl.’
Баба baba is a Russian word for peasant woman; бабка babka, a simple diminutive form can bear an unpleasant meaning of ‘short, ugly older woman’; бабушка babushka is another diminutive, the one that was borrowed into English to name a head-scarf that some older Russian women wear tied under the chin. But this diminutive is semantically positive, for babushka means only ‘grandmother.’ Babushka also names —incorrectly—the famous little nesting dolls. The correct name of the doll in Russian is матрёшка matryoshka ‘little matron.’ матрёшка is a diminutive of the female first name Матрёна or Matryona.
Purely affectionate is use of the k-suffix in familial terms. Tyot is Russian for ‘aunt,’ tyotushka is ‘Auntie’ or ‘My dear aunt.’
Further Uses of this Diminutive
Jama is the Russian word for ‘ditch,’ thus a jamka would be a ‘small ditch,’ but playfully a jamoska ‘a nice little ditch’ is the surprising Russian word for a ‘dimple.’ One can almost hear a long-ago Slavic mother touching her son’s chin and dubbing its dimple ‘a nice little ditch.’
As дочь doch is ‘daughter’ so дочка dochka is ‘daughter dear.’
Книга kniga is book; книжка knishka is pamphlet.
Лицо letso is face; личико lecheko is ‘your dear little face.’
Oкно okno is window; окошко okoshko is ‘peephole.’
Some other Slavic diminutives bearing the –ka suffix include many of the Russian words for berries of various species. Two of these are:
черника chernika blueberry, literally ‘little black thing’ and клубника kloobneka 'garden strawberry.'
Modern English has few productive diminutive suffixes but one of them is -y or-ie as in piggywiggy, Freddie-boy, Betsy-Wetsy. Many of them could be translated into Russian using the –ka or -ko suffix.
Kolbasa, колбаса, means ‘sausage’ in Russian. But a Moscow butcher might point to one tray and ask you to try this Колбаска kolbaska ‘little sausage’ in the sense of ‘tasty little sausage.’
Sometimes diminutive suffixes in colloquial Russian add a pejorative sense to a word, for example старик starek is ‘old man’ but старикашка starekashka is ‘dirty, creepy, smelly old bastard.’
Affectionate Nicknames Using Russian Diminutive Suffixes
An American movie title helped make the Russian affectionate diminutive for the given name Nina quite well known in English, Ниночка Ninotchka. Greta Garbo shone as the stern communist apparatchik (apparat-chick?) sent to Paris who commits the fatal political faux pas of falling in love.
Alexandra may have the sweet nickname Сашка Shashka or a double-diminutive like Шурочка Shurochka.
Anna’s Russian intimates may address her as Аннушка Annushka.
Sweetness & Light
The affectionate diminutive is of course used in Russian between playful lovers. English “My widdle wabbit” might go into Russian as зайчик (zahchek) ‘little hare,’ presumably for a much earlier *zahcheka’ or *zahcheko. The Russian word for sun is sol but a lover beckoning a soulmate into a hotel room might whisper, “солнышко” solnishko ‘little sun [of my life].’
Some other verbal morsels of Russian tendresse: kotik (pussycat), kotyonok (kitten), zaika/zaichik (bunny), lapochka (sweetie pie), zvezda moya (my star). Create a tender word in Russian by adding this diminutive suffix: ryba (fish) can become rybka (little fish), mysh (mouse) can be myshka (little mouse). As we learned above zvezda means ‘star,’ and zvyozdochka moya is ‘my sweet little star.’
From Moscow to Mexico For a Personal Anecdote
Many languages around the world delight in the diminutive as part of the language of love. Years ago I sauntered out of a Mexican restaurant one spring evening in San Miguel de Allende. Ahead of me strolled a young couple. The hombre was, in a sweetly musical voice, trying to coax his muchacha to come home with him. Softly to her ear, he whispered a fountain of Spanish diminutive enticements, the best I ever heard: “Por favor, Carmen. . . querida. . . bonita . . . azucarita (my little sugar). . . jefita (my little commander-in-chief). . . lindita (my wee pretty one) . . . farolita (my shining lamp) . . . mi chulita (my hot little cookie) etc. Graciously compliant and charmed by his verbal dexterity – perhaps a hint of some physical dexterity during the evening ahead – Carmen linked arms with him and they dawdled off into a promising twilight.
Bill Casselman, January 12, 2017
Text copyright 2017 William Gordon Casselman
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Increase your knowledge of words by learning about Russian diminutive endings
in Slavic words borrowed into English like vodka