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How Our Little Groundhog Got Its Name

The Bavarian diminutive suffix still floats around in our family’s language.

Posted: Nov 1, 2011 08:49 pm

My Opa and Oma, Mom’s parents, were born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1899 and 1900. They came to America in the 1920s, and both learned to speak English – Opa learned well and was proud to be able to complete the daily crossword puzzles. Oma’s English was shakier, and she often lapsed into a half-german half-english word salad, which everyone understood, of course. Their daughter, my Mom, learned German well enough to speak, read and translate. Sadly, in the next generation, only David learned enough German to visit, and the rest of our generation knows almost nothing at all. But strangely, bit and pieces of the German language still float around in the communications of my generation – consider this case.

According to Wikipedia, here,

In Bavarian and Austrian German, the -l or -erl suffix can replace almost any usual German diminutive. For example, the standard word for ‘girl’ in German is Mädchen and, while Mädchen is still used frequently in Austrian German, a more colloquial “cute” usage would be Mädl or Madl. It is regular for Austrians to replace the normal Bisschen (‘a little’ as in “Can I have a little more?”) with Bissl.

My Bavarian Oma spoke this way, in the half-German half-English that she spoke when I was growing up. She pronounced this local diminutive suffix even more distinctly, sounding more like ‘-iddl’ or ‘-ittl’ than ‘-erl’ – perhaps she was rolling the ‘r’. So, Bissl sounded like ‘Bitsittl’ and the kitten, Katzerl, became ‘Katsiddl’. Little Jimmy was ‘Yamazl’, little Fritz, ‘Fritziddl’ and little David, ‘Daffiddl’ – that’s how she said it, ‘Dah-feedl’.

The Bavarian diminutive suffix indicates not just smallness, but is also a term of endearment, used to shorten the names of little children and pets, and to indicate cuteness, sweetness, and familiar attachment.

So these days we sometimes play at making up fake German words, using the sounds from our childhood; and our local backyard groundhog has been christened, the ‘Grund Schweinerl’ which is pronounced, rolling the final ‘r’, as the ‘Grund schweiniddl’.


Slideshow from my Flickr account:

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