“Tiny” words that get no bigger

Yesterday I was discussing how to form the plural of das Kaninchen – “rabbit.” This discussion began because this word, and a picture of a rabbit, appears on the cover of the Pixi book Unsere Tiere: Ein Bestimmungsbuch – Our Animals: A Field (Classification) Guide – and unfortunately for German learners, the cover is the only place where the definite article appears. (This seems a bit ironic given the book’s title includes a compound with die Bestimmung, a word from the same family as the adjective bestimmt, since the “definite article” is a bestimmter Artikel.) Bob joked that we would simply have to use the definite plural – die – all the time which got us wondering how the plural for –chen words was formed.

A quick check with dict.cc showed that several sample –chen words (that we’d been discussing on another day because of their pronunciations) – das Stäbchen and das Mädchen (“chopstick” and “girl”) – had null plurals. Immediately, a new hypothesis came to mind, perhaps both of the major diminutive forms –chen and –lein – have null plurals? I investigated this with das Buchlein and das Fräulein (“booklet” and “unmarried woman”) and it appeared to hold true. A quick search today led me to this page on the German for English Speakers site. It shared two facts that I already knew about the two big German diminutives (pun intended): they take das as a definite article and they often trigger an umlaut during conversion. It also confirmed the new idea that their singular and plural forms are identical.

I have to say I love a rule that tells you to do absolutely nothing to signal a grammatical change, such rules seem rather few and far between in German!

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