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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Diminutive

    In our English language some of the tenderest, sweetest and most endearing, yet most elusive words are our diminutives. Webster's dictionary tells us that 'Charley' is the diminutive of 'Charles.' Her Majesty the Queen might call Prince Charles, 'Charley,' but we may not do so: it is too intimate, too endearing a name, for a stranger to use.

    Nor is it only to children that we use diminutives. I had an uncle by name of Charles, and he was 'Uncle Charley' to his nieces and nephews as long as he lived: so a diminutive may lose the sense of size, by being overpowered by the sense of endearment; Yet not all diminutives have the sense of endearment, though many have. 'Rivulet' is the diminutive of 'river,' and has no other sense than the smallness of its size.

    'Bairnie' is the diminutive of 'bairn' and really means 'a little bairn;' but a Scotch mother may say to her boys and girls, even after they are grown up: "My bairnie!" and they will understand that she does not refer to size, but affection: and if they are nice children, they will return that affection with a kiss.

    We have various ways of forming our diminutives in English, as noted: rivulet, bairnie, lambkin, and so forth. In the Greek New Testament we also find diminutives, but they are formed by adding the letter "i." Thus, 'teknon' a child, becomes teknion in its diminutive. 'Thugater,' 'daughter,' has 'thugatrion' for its diminutive; but I know of no diminutive in English for 'daughter,' though a beloved friend tells me they have one in German.

    We do not very often use diminutives in English; in a sense they are almost too sacred to be dragged into ordinary usage; and are reserved for occasions of special stress or feeling. The same, I think, is true in Greek. This makes them the more precious when they are used.

    To me, one of the loveliest diminutives in the Greek New Testament is 'teknion', mentioned above. The Lord himself is speaking when we first hear it in the New Testament. It is on the same night in which he was betrayed; and He exclaims, 'Teknia!' (the plural of Teknion), "Teknia, Yet a little while I am with you!" That parting was before His soul, and well He knew what it would mean to His disciples; and so, with a heart full of love, He exclaims; "Teknia!" I know not how it can be translated.

    Our Authorised version has, "Little children!" Mr. Darby has, "Children", Rotherham has "Dear Children." All, in a sense, are right; but none seem to me to even begin to translate what was in the Lord's heart, and what He expressed to His disciples that night, by that one little word, "Teknia." One excellent dictionary suggests that the best translation of 'teknon' is the Scottish word 'bairn.' Both come from a word meaning 'to be born.' Those who have had the privilege of a Scottish mother or wife will know exactly what was meant when she said to her children: "Bairnies!" That, I think, is what the Lord meant when He said, on that dark betrayal night 'Teknia!"
So wrote Christopher Willis, a missionary to China, who spent his last days in a small Northern Ontario town, isolated and excommunicated from his assembly for no reason at all but the hard hearts of his brethren. Shortly before he died he came to stay in our home. Everyone else was out till later that evening, and I was left to cook the dinner and entertain him alone. I was 12 years old. He brought with him a copy of his recently written Hid Treasures Found in the Greek New Testament, from which I have taken this passage, as a hostess gift.

I wonder sometimes if we have lost the ability to express such tenderness, across age and gender gaps. How thrilling for a child to be given a gift which says, some day you will grow up and maybe you will study the Greek New Testament as I did, and teach the things that I teach. Such tenderness, to treat a child with this kind of respect.

We never know who we will touch with tenderness and endearments. How my heart turns to a translation like Rotherham's. Unenglish as it is, it is full of the expression of endearment, "Dear Children." Let's not lose the ability to address each other with tenderness.

John 13:33 τεκνια

Children - Darby, HCSB
Dear Children - Rotherham, NLT, Tyndale, Coverdale
Little Children - KJV, ESV, NASB, Bishops, Geneva
My Children - (T)NIV, CEV, GNB
Liebe Kindlein - Luther

I am always touched and enriched by knowing that people read this blog, and I am very grateful to cobloggers, the blogging community and blogreaders for creating such an affectionate community.


At Sun Dec 16, 11:42:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

There's actually a large literature on the semantics of diminutives. Two things worth looking at are Dan Jurafsky's 1996 article in Language "Universal tendencies in the semantics of the diminutive" and Dressler and Barbaresi's book on morphopragmatics, which has a lot about diminutives in it.

Based on their work, my money is on 'dear children' as the proper interpretation of τεχνια.

But at the same time it's not clear to me that diminutives were as rare in Koine as they are in English, and there are some interesting uses, like the diminutive of a metal name seems to mean a piece of the metal (hence, frequently a coin). χρυσιον (< χρυσος), and αργυριον (< αργυρος). Also there is the more difficult form ασσαριον (borrowed from Lat. assarius, but treated like a Greek diminutive and hence neuter).

At Mon Dec 17, 03:28:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

As one of your little ones, I reciprocate your affectionate greetings in great measure.

At Mon Dec 17, 03:48:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Fyi, add the NEB and REB to the "My children" list.

At Mon Dec 17, 04:20:00 AM, Blogger Eddie said...

How intriguing! Though I'm not a Scot, the word bairn is very much a part of my dialect, but it would not be applied to an adult except in teasing. Generally, in my dialect, bairn occurs in combinations (bonny bairn - a beautiful child or canny bairn - a nice child as in "eee but that Lingamish is a canny bairn".

I must admit to never having heard the diminutive bairnie either, it certainly isn't part of my lexicon. I lived for a while in Scotland, but that was in the South-West where they say wain (wee one) for children.

At Mon Dec 17, 10:25:00 AM, Blogger exegete77 said...

God's Word has "dear children" in John 13:33.

At Mon Dec 17, 02:01:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Willis Barnstone has "Children" in John 13:33.

Richmond Lattimore has "My children"; so does Robert Funk.

J.B. Phillips has "Oh, my children."

At Tue Dec 18, 04:11:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

What if τεκνια is John's Greek translation of the Aramaic (טליתא) and (טל)?

What if that's what Mary called her daughters and sons, including Jesus?

What if the young man Jesus is just saying to his "children" what he heard his Momma say to them: ţlīthā and ţlē?

Does John get the parents' Aramaic right in Greek? Can we in English?

At Thu Dec 20, 07:08:00 AM, Blogger Singing Owl said...

What an interesting post! And lovely as well. I had such a picture of the elder giving a present like that...

And I had a sweet moment of recollection of my own very large "Uncle Charlie." But that's another issue altogether.

I hope you are well, and I wish you blessings of all sorts, Suzanne, during this season especially.

At Sat Dec 29, 11:49:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

I came across another “diminutive” in the REB, this time in Luke 15:31, as part of the parable of the prodigal son:

“My boy,” said the father, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

Perhaps more a term of familiarity than a diminutive, but “My boy” struck me as a particularly endearing phrase.


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