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)?

  • 1
    I may be wrong in singling French. I'm doing so because that's the language I'm the most comfortable with, and I don't have enough knowledge in Italian, Spanish or other Romance languages to easily find examples. However, I am interested in why diminutives are used inconsistently with genders, whatever the language. Do you think I should turn my question into a more general one? Cheers!
    – Reyedy
    Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 13:07
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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. Commented Oct 1, 2020 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
    Commented Oct 1, 2020 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. Commented Oct 1, 2020 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. Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 15:46


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