Small and Cute? Small and Bad?: Divergent Semantic Extension of Diminutive Expressions in Thai and Korean

Authors: Kultida Khammee (University of Phayao, Thailand) , Seongha Rhee (Hankuk Univ. of Foreign Studies, Korea, Mahidol University, Thailand)
Speakers: Kultida Khammee
Strand: Text, Context, Entextuaization
Session Type: General Session


Lexemes denoting ‘small’ typically undergo a range of semantic or functional extension either as free-standing lexical forms, or weakly-grammaticalized derivational morphemes, or even fully grammatical forms (such as classifiers). There is a body of literature analyzing diminutives in individual languages and across languages (Jurafsky 1996). However, comparative analyses between typologically distinct languages have been largely underrepresented. This research analyzes an isolating language (Thai) and an agglutinating language (Korean).

Thai has a large number of lexemes denoting ‘small’, e.g. luk, lek, yom, khi, chio, noi, non, nong, pon, bao, bang, chun, khrae, on, yoi, etc. (which mean ‘small(ness)’ as their primary meaning and in addition carry diverse extended meanings at variable degrees of semanticization. These lexemes also show variable degrees of productivity, and further, of morphosyntactic bonding with other lexemes.

Korean has a few types of forms with the diminutive semantics, in the form of individual words (cakun, elin), prefixes (cakun-, elin-, so-) and suffixes (-aki, -aci, -ali), all denoting ‘small(ness)’ but also other related meanings. Furthermore, the prefixes come from two different sources, Sino-Korean and native Korean, with differential specialization.

A comparative analysis reveals that the smallness concept forms an elaborate conceptual network in five major domains, i.e. YOUNG (thus, younger person, cute, last-born), WEAK (thus, immature, insignificant), FINE (thus, powder, soft, minute, grind, dust, feces), LOW DENSITY (thus, rare, rarefy, thin out, slacken, light, slight, low-priced, subtle, approximate, ethereal, skinny, little bit, etc.), DEPENDENT (thus, derived, fruit, subordinate, complement), and ROUND (thus, fruit, round, smooth); whereas Korean has WEAK (thus, low in degree, insufficient, inferior, contempt; also branching out to animal and animal body-part), DEPENDENT (thus, approximation, imitation, also branching out to exact), NON-FIRST, and INDIVIDUATION.

Semantic extension directionalities in Thai and Korean diminutive lexemes exhibit certain similarities but also a number of differences in the motivating inference patterns, e.g. ‘small therefore cute’ in Thai and ‘small therefore contemptible’ in Korean, in particular, leading to largely more neutral or positive meanings in Thai, and to largely negative and pejorative meanings in Korean including animal and animal body-part naming. Drawing upon corpus data this paper examines the conceptual extension patterns behind the evaluative morphopragmatics of diminutives from crosslinguistic and grammaticalization perspectives.


Jurafsky, Danial (1996), Universal tendencies in the semantics of the diminutive. Language 72(3), 533-578.

Keywords: Diminutive, Semantic Extension, Evaluative, Thai, Korean