As a beginner studying Ukrainian, I occasionally run across two words with the same definition but maybe a letter apart, and their declension tables differ also. An example would be the word “girl”. One reference gives the (nom. sin.) spelling as ді́вчи́на and (nom. pl.) ді́вча́та. Another reference shows it as (nom. Sin.) дівчинка and (nom. pl.) дівчинки. I am unable to determine if this is due to the words being synonyms, to regional differences, or possibly an error in listing. What am I missing?
The Ukrainian language widely uses derivational suffixes. Some of them may change the word meaning significantly, some are just augmentative/diminutive, some change the meaning very slightly. Although the same derivational suffix usually plays in various words more-or-less similar role (or, at least, one of the few predefined roles), but in rare cases adding a suffix to the word can bring some new meaning (e.g. while грудка is just a diminutive for груда, ручка can mean “handle” and "pen" in addition to being diminutive for рука).
Let's consider diminutive suffixes:
- риба — “fish”; біда — “misfortune, trouble, calamity";
- рибка — diminutive for риба (possibly small fish, or when referring to the fish with kindness); бідка (actually, rarely used) — diminutive for біда (possibly smaller mishap, or when being ironic about it);
- рибонька — even more diminutive for риба; бідонька — even more diminutive for біда.
-К- is probably the less intensive of the Ukrainian diminutive suffixes. Sometimes it is so non-intensive, that the difference between the word variant with -к- and the word variant without -к- is hard to feel; or even that they are used absolutely interchangeably; or even that the version without -к- vanishes from the language, leaving the к-version as the first in the “neutral → diminutive → more diminutive → even more → …” sequence. But the difference between дівчина and дівчинка exists:
- дівчина is any young (usually unmarried) female: either adult (but still young), or child;
- дівчинка is only a child female.
Дівчина, similarly to the English girl, can be used not only to denote age-and-gender, but also to denote dating/love/sexual relationship with somebody (like: “do you have a girl?”). You cannot use дівчинка in that sense; although in some occasions you can use дівчинка for an adult woman (e.g. to denote your very tender feelings to her or to denote her infantilism/incompetence), but even in these allegoric/figurative usages дівчинка denotes more childishness than sexuality.
Post Scriptum: I should note that -к- and -оньк- are not the only diminutive suffixes in Ukrainian. You should not interpret the above text as declaration of the crisp “neutral → diminutive → even more diminutive” scheme that can be applied to any noun. In fact Ukrainian language has quite wide range of diminutive suffixes (-к-, -ик-, -ок-, -еньк-/-оньк-, -еч(о)к-/-оч(о)к-, -ул-, -ус-, -ушк-, etc) and they don't have strict “less diminutive to more diminutive” arrangement and not every noun can accept every suffix (some suffixes fit specific words better than others, and that's more the matter of tradition than the dependence on meaning).
Post Post Scriptum: And, of course, not all derivational suffixes in Ukrainian are diminutive. Besides the diminutive and augmentive suffixes, there are many other derivational suffixes with various meaning (e.g. some resemble English -er, -ist, -ness, etc).
This question is both easy and difficult to answer at the same time. As many language learners, you seem to face several linguistic phenomenons taking place simultaneously. So in order to answer the question, it seems to be a good idea to separate these phenomenons and look at them individually one by one.
maybe a letter apart
A language learner should not think in terms of "letter apart". The derived words are always¹ morpheme apart. In this case, the morpheme is suffix
-к- which is responsible for the denomination of a diminutive. An English counterpart would be
-ie suffix as in "dog/doggy" pair. Hence, one may expect that дівчинка is a diminutive, and this would be a correct assumption.
Side note: there is not a single diminutive suffix; an absence of suffix may also act as diminutive. In this case, дівча́ (Neuter grammatical gender) can also be a diminutive from дівчина.
Also, it is also quite valid to form the Plural for дівчи́на totally without the
SNG: дівчи́на; PLR: дівчи́ни.
The plural дівча́та is formed with the use of siffix
-ят-). This work (link to PDF) says:
Throughout all periods of the Ukrainian language, there have been many substantives, the formal structure of which includes suffix
In Slavonic period, formant
-ęt-was rather productive and served primarily as a suffix that created the denominations of young offspring. Diminutive, hypocoristic meaning is closely associated with it. In old-Russ-Ukrainian language, suffix
–а) was involved mainly in the creation of the denominations of young animals.
Further, this formant served as a means of derivation of children’s denominations.
In the following periods of the Ukrainian language development the range of nouns with
-ат-/-ят-, in addition to preserving old derivatives, grew as a result of individual author derivation.
I have no proof, but it looks possible that the formant
-ęt- is somehow related to old Germanic suffix
-ette, as in vampirette or wagonette.
¹ always morpheme-apart, but sometimes the morphemes can undergo some distortion and may not be easy to recognize.
² I'm not aware what the author means by an apostrophe here.