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In English, many adjectives support the -er ending to express a notion of exceeding:

  1. John is taller than Mary (is).
  2. Mary is smarter than John (is).

Of course, you can also have the more analytic construction:

  • Mary is more intelligent than John (is).

But with the notion of "does not exceed", less, only the analytic form is available:

  • John is less smart than Mary is.
  • John is less intelligent than Mary is.

Does any language express the less form using bound morphology the way we do with -er in (1) and (2)?

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    Didn't you mean "more analytic construction"?
    – Alenanno
    Feb 6 '12 at 20:39
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A diminutive is not the same as what a "less" morpheme would be — it lacks comparative semantics.

However, to answer your question, the answer is, no there is not any such language which expresses a concept of "less" synthetically, at least none has been found despite a very large (300+ language) cross-linguistic survey by Jonathan Bobalijk. See his paper "Universals in Comparative Morphology", for his explanation of why such a morpheme never occurs.

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    In case you were referring to my answer: I know exactly what the difference is between the two; fearing that there was no answer, I provided some information that might be interesting for the OP, though of course it is not the same thing.
    – Cerberus
    Feb 7 '12 at 6:10
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    By the way, I excluded the languages I knew or could check (french, spanish, german) then asked around to native speakers of: Russian, Ungarian, Lithuanian, Swedish. But nothing came out. :)
    – Alenanno
    Feb 7 '12 at 10:16
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    So what does this paper have to say about Turkish -cE, I wonder? Feb 7 '12 at 22:49
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    ...and the answer is: Turkish was one of the languages surveyed and no "less" comparative was found; in fact, it says Turkish only has analytic degrees of comparison. Feb 7 '12 at 23:04
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    To my knowledge, Bobalijk is pretty good about acknowledging counterexamples to his claims (including problematic data from Basque and Russian for his analysis of regular comparatives). So, I would need to see a paper analyzing the -cE as a less comparative, to be convinced.
    – user325
    Feb 7 '12 at 23:29
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In Turkish, the suffic "-cE" gives this meaning when added to adjectives, such as "güzelce". It means that the person or thing is less beautiful than the mentioned thing. For instance:

Annesi gibi güzelce bir kız

It means that she is less beautiful than her mother. However, in some contexts it can mean "nearly". I asked which meaning people think of when they hear words to which this suffix was added; they answered "less". However, this research is not very broad or scientific; I have only asked the people I could contact. Maybe this answer will help you to some extent.

I have found a paper about this suffix; however, the section related to it is very little and not very much detailed.

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  • Please give a citation for this analysis of -cE?
    – user325
    Feb 10 '12 at 4:37
  • @Knitter, as I mentioned before, I do not have a scientific research, I have asked only the native speakers when I am suspect of this meaning as a native speaker. I will try to find a research about this topic, when I find, I will share it. Feb 10 '12 at 9:11
  • @Knitter, I cannot find a detailed research for the suffix; however, I find a little section in a paper for this meaning of the suffix. The language of the research is Turkish, so I have translated the related section. Feb 18 '12 at 10:49
  • The translation is: "the meaning of less": The suffix gives the meaning of less to the root. Initially, the meaning seems as "like,as"; however, in depth it is "less". Being an adjective or an adverb changes the meaning of the word. "topluca kız" [: the girl who is less fat], "topluca katıldık." [:we attended (the missind object) as a unity.], "fazlaca para". The link of the paper is web.ebscohost.com/ehost/… Feb 18 '12 at 11:09
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Well, Krivoshein de Canese and Acosta Alcaraz' (2007:102) "Gramática Guarani" gives as "comparativo the inferioridad" ('inferiority comparative') the affix -ive, which attaches to the standard of comparison NP. Their example is "Susana omba'apo'ive Anagui" meaning 'Susana works less than Ana'. However, -i is a diminutive, and -ve is the comparative of superiority so... it seems that the meaning of inferiority is obtained compositionally from the superiority comparative...

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I don't know any language that does exactly what you want; but it may interest you to know that the diminutive suffix -lus can be used with adjectives in Latin:

(1) aedes = room, house
(2) aedicula = little room or house

(1) acer = petulant
(2) acriculus = a little/bit petulant

What's behind this is that the distinction between nouns and adjectives was not felt to be very strict in Latin: acer can mean "petulant" or "a petulant person/thing". But the diminutive form can certainly be used when the word is used adjectivally/attributively, as in vir acriculus.

Note that this suffix is productive, but it is relatively uncommon—certainly less common than English forms with "less".

Derived suffixes that work the same way are -ulus, -culus, -(u)sculus, -(u)nculus, -illus, -ellus. They can all indicate a diminutive or a repeated action (as in credulus).

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