I'm a native French speaker, and I noticed that for a lot of masculine objects, we use the suffix -ette to designate a smaller version of it, which turns it into a feminine word. Here are a few examples:

 Petit balai --> Balayette
 Petit camion --> Camionnette
 Petite fourche --> Fourchette

The -ette suffix (apparently) originates from the Latin suffix -itta.

Versions of it can be found in other Latin languages, such as the Spanish -ito and -ita, or the Italian -etto and -etta, which seem to be used accordingly with the gender of the word they are attached to. In French, we do have the masculine suffix -et, but it is not used consistently with masculine words.

Interestingly, diminutive suffixes can also originate from Latin inus (like the Portuguese -inho and -inha, and the Italian -ino and -ina), but in French it gave birth to the suffix -in, which I believe is used for different purposes.

How come French doesn't consistently use "-et" for masculine words, and "-ette" for feminine words? Where in time did it become different from other Romance languages (if it really is)?

  • I think there are many examples where diminutives are used inconsistently in Italian as well. For example the diminutive of camion (m) is camionetta (f) and of tasca (f) is taschino (m). So it's not clear to me why you are singling French in this. Oct 1 '20 at 12:29
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    I am not an expert in the history of the French language, but maybe it is a German substrate/adstrate effect: German has one common gender (neuter in the German case) for all diminutives. Oct 1 '20 at 13:30
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    An obvious characteristic of French vs the other Romance languages is that the loss or neutralisation of final vowels has led to far less obvious morphological distinction between m and f forms. Woud you expect -ittu to have a different result in French from -itta?
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 1 '20 at 14:59
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    @ColinFine -ittu yielded French -et /ɛ/, while -itta became -ette /ɛt(ə)/. -et isn't productive anymore, while -ette still is, which might be what precipitated the question from the OP, since words in -ette feel a lot more like a root+a suffix than words in -et do. Oct 1 '20 at 15:41
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    I'll add that the reverse phenomenon (feminine words suffixed by -et) does happen: la cabine -> le cabinet, la brique -> le briquet, la pistole -> le pistolet, la feuille -> le feuillet, la mule -> le mulet, la cervelle -> le cervelet. Most of those don't feel like diminutives anymore though. Oct 1 '20 at 15:46

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