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Diminutives in Luganda

Revision as of 19:47, 3 March 2012 by Medadi Erisa Ssentanda (Talk | contribs)

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by Medadi Erisa Ssentanda


A diminutive (DIM) form refers to a slight degree of something, the smallness of an object or quality, but it can also express intimacy or endearment. Luganda (Bantu E15), like many other Bantu languages uses noun class prefixes and adjectives to mark diminutives. When a noun appears in its diminutive form, agreement is required. This means that various words that modify the noun must carry agreement prefixes. For a general overview of the noun class system please go to A comparative analysis of Runyankore-Rukiga and Luganda pronominal agreement

Diminutives in Luganda are widely formed by assigning a noun or proper name to classes 12/13 prefix to common nouns or proper names. Class 14 (obu) is also diminutive, but class 14 contains a bigger number of inherent nouns than 12/13. Inherently assigned nouns are not diminutive in nature. Examples of inherently assigned nouns to class 12/13 are:

CLASS 12 - Inherent Nouns
Nouns inherent to cl12 English translation
akajanja insolence, impudence, meddlesomeness
akatandaalo a raised table like structure for drying utencils
akalulu a vote
akateebe deep water
akakunizo puzzle
akamooli ventilator

The following pattern arises for diminution in noun classes: cl12 items are diminutivised in cl13 and pluralised in cl14. However, nouns from all other classes can become diminutice by adding cl12, 13 or 14 prefixes. The following tables explain this.

The plural of nouns in class 12 is class 14 obu. For instance akamooli 'ventilator' becomes obumooli 'ventilators'.

CLASS 13 otu Inherent Nouns
Nouns inherent to cl13 English translation
otulo sleep (N)

It is important to stress here that the plural class of 12 is cl14.

Cl12 pluralisation is cl14, see the following table:

CLASS 12 aka- Inherent Nouns, singular
Singular Plural form English translation
akakongovvule obukongovvule ankles
akateebe obuteebe deep waters
akatandaalo obutandaalo raised table-like structure for drying utencils
akakunizo obukunizo puzzles

and for class 14,

CLASS 14 Inherent Nouns
noun English translation
obulo millet
obubaka message
obuugi porridge
obukeedo raw material for making a basket

But when a diminutive connotation of those nouns is intended, then cl13 is used as given here:

CLASS 12 diminutives
cl12 otu English translation
akamooli otumooli beautiful/endeared ventilators
akajanja no plural
akakongovvule otukongovvule small/beautiful/endeared ankles

It should be noted that the exact meaning of KA- being a dimutive or otherwise will depend on the context.

Let us now look at the derivation of diminutives.

Examples are given in the table below:

Noun class Root Diminutive Gloss
cl12 aka- -sajja man akasajja small/tiny man
cl12 aka- -wala girl akawala small/tiny girl
cl12 aka caayi tea kacaayi tea (endeared)(from Swahili, chai)
cl12 aka -ti tree akati stick/tiny/small tree
13OTU Uncountable nouns -zzi waterkm light in a year otuzzi small amount of water/precious water
cl12 aka -nnyu salt otunnyu little salt/precious salt
cl14 OBU Plural -lenzi boy obulenzi small boys, derogatorykm light in a year
cl14 obu -papula paper obupapula small/tiny papers/beautiful papers

Example sentences: 1

In this phrase, the man referred to is negatively evaluated by the diminutive. Inherently, a diminutive sense implies that something is small or tiny. However, the context may suggest not small in size, but mean that we evaluate the referent of the diminutive noun. The social context might also lead to an interpretation where the diminutive receives a positive evaluation. For instance, the sentence Akagoye ko kalungi means that the cloth/dress/shirt is positively evaluated and the speaker in so saying would want to posses such a cloth.

Also for people that do not have the means to buy sufficient food, the following sentence is a natural utterance. 2

Of course a diminutive might also stand for small like in the example below: 3

The other additional element of meaning that is often associated with diminutive is affection, endearment or sympathy towards the referent. As already mentioned, in sentence (3) above, the speaker who treasures the little salt referred to. Possibly it is the only salt left, and could be uttered by someone who cannot stand to waste it.

Like Booij (2005:14) puts it, diminutives are not only used to denote small size but also for giving a positive negative evaluation. For instance in sentence (3) the jobs referred to are disapproved, they are not proper. I thought he/she does any kind of job he/she finds; he/she does not discriminate, and the jobs are short lived, but not disapproved.

In Luganda, diminution can also be formed by adding affixes to proper names: when this is done, the noun becomes derogatory and negatively evaluates the referent. This addition of a diminutive prefix onto a proper name may however mean endearment. However, the meaning here can also be a colloquial expression. For instance:

The following sentence may have all the above named intepretations. 4


In this case the meaning of the diminutive varies from context to context, see example ii above. The John in question can be endeared to the speaker or that the John talked of is negatively evaluated (derogatory). In his paper, A short survey of Diminutives in Slovak and English Alena Kačmárová mentions about diminutives: A means by which a language can be considered ‘cute’ is the usage of diminutive forms of nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. In Luganda, diminution can at times be untranslatable. It is not uncommon in Ugandan English to hear Luganda speakers appending Luganda diminutives to English words in an attempt to express their intended meanings. This probably comes because the intended shade of meaning has no match to the English equivalents. What is interesting is that, the diminutives are sometimes appended to the English diminutives, see example iii and iv below. The same case happens with augmentation.



This kind of language is so common among the youth.

In example (7) notice that ka (class12 prefix) denotes smallness, and the English adjective small also means small; but because of the untranslatable nature of some meanings, some speakers feel unsatisfied with using only the English adjective.

In continuation, diminutives can be used to denote small amounts.

–tini tiny

This adjective, -tini is very common in young children’s language. They use it to refer to smallness and also to tininess of something. Adults do not usually use this adjective.

Cultural usage of diminutives

In the Kiganda culture, when someone gives birth, people begin to ask if it is a boy or girl givne birth to. The question posed in this situation is diminutive denoting littlness, endearment and affection:

Also, when one is congratulating a mother they say:


I first showed that diminution is applicable in Luganda, then I showed the classes that denote diminution. I then showed how diminution is applied by affixing diminutive class prefixes to common nouns and proper names. And lastly I explained the cultural usage of diminutives in Luganda.


Booij, G.(2005) The Grammar of Words: An Introduction (2nd edn). Oxford University Press: UK


Kačmárová, Alena. A short survey of Diminutives in Slovak and English