For a country so famous for its big stuff, Brazil can, in a funny way, be thought of as the land of the tiny. Practically no word is immune from diminution.

I’d barely been in Brazil 24 hours when I was let in on a segredinho (a little secret). In a barzinho (a local bar) as the sun went down, a new Brazilian amiguinho (a good friend) I’d met in my Rio de Janeiro hostel had a frosted bottle of Antarctica beer sweating in his hand. Chatting about our night ahead, he poured our drinks and told me, “If you want to speak with a girl tonight, don’t ask her to have a cerveja [a beer]; ask her if she’d like a cervejinha (a little beer) instead. She’ll love it if you use this word.”

And this is how I was introduced to Brazil’s cute but complicated small talk. Not those pleasantries about the weather you’re probably thinking of, but the diminutivos (diminutives) Brazilians love to pepper their sentences with, adding the suffix inho/a or zinho/a to names, adjectives and adverbs. For many Brazilians, though, it’s like the shaker’s lid has fallen off and everything they say is covered in a mountain of diminutives, changing the flavour of their words in the process.

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Meteorologist Carine Malagolini from São Paulo told me diminutives are like a form of baby talk Brazilians never grow out of. “We use diminutives [a lot], and a lot of times without even noticing. I think that their use came from childhood, because we’d hear and talk like this with our parents. For example, ‘You’d like a bananinha [a little piece of banana]?’,” she said.

While samba is the famous sound of Brazil, all the inhos and inhas flying around in their daily chatter are a photo-finish second. Literally, they make something smaller, effectively softening a word, turning it cute and gentle. And while in English diminutives are often seen as a little childish (kitty, doggy, mummy), everyone in Brazil, from politicians to medical doctors, use them without any hint of irony.

Context is everything in this linguistic dance

For a country so famous for its big stuff – the Amazon, Christ the Redeemer and Carnival – Brazil can, in a funny way, be thought of as the land of the tiny. Practically no word is immune from diminution. Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium is famous for having held 199,854 screaming South American fans in the 1950 World Cup decider when Brazil lost to Uruguay 2-1. In football terms, its reputation is gargantuan. So what did they call the small indoor stadium they later built alongside it for basketball and volleyball? No prizes for guessing this one – Maracanãzinho.

But I soon discovered diminutives can add all sorts of hidden meaning that can go right over a foreigner’s head. Context is everything in this linguistic dance. As my new Brazilian friend later explained to me, using ‘cervejinha’ instead of ‘cerveja’ implied an innocent and friendly invitation, without any intentions to get drunk late into the night with all that often involves. “Genius,” I thought. “One suffix can say all that?”

As University of Brasilia linguist Dr Marcos Bagno told me, “The diminutive in ‘inho’ and ‘inha’, besides indicating the small size of something, brings a sense of kindness [and] affection – very characteristic of the Brazilian spirit.”

Lawyer Suzana Vaz from Rio de Janeiro is one of the many Brazilians who loves using diminutives. Before I brought this linguistic habit up with her, she admitted that she had never really noticed how much she used them, but explained that “sweet people generally speak like this”.

“So you mean you’re sweet or that Brazilians are in general?” I asked.

“Brazilians are warmer, loving. They like contact, body to body. They’re alive. To speak in the diminutive is a form of affection most of the time, it’s softness in speech,” she said.

The funny thing about diminutives in Brazil is that they often soften the meaning of words so much that they end up meaning the opposite of what they’re implying. Like my Brazilian girlfriend telling me to ‘just wait another minutinho (a little minute)’ as she got ready. After waiting 15 more of those alleged little minutes, I asked how she could say a ‘minuto’, let alone a ‘minutinho’, with a clear conscience. “But it makes those minutes pass quicker,” she assured me with a loving smile, the diminutive rolling off her tongue as if it could bend the fabric of space and time itself.

Similarly, I was once invited to a party at a casinha (a little house), only for my Uber to pull up outside a four-storey mansion with a swimming pool. “Some ‘casinha’,” I said to the owner. “Ah yes,” he laughed. “It doesn’t mean the house is small, it means it’s a warm place you should feel comfortable and welcome.” And in true Brazilian style, through a night of laughter and dancing with a bunch of strangers, I felt right at home.

And despite what I previously said, Brazilians are routinely guilty of letting a so-called ‘cervejinha’ turn into a table full of empty beer bottles by the time the night’s over. With examples like these piling up, I started to cotton on to the fact that using diminutives in Brazil is just as much a fun way of speaking as a literal one.

Caminhos Language School Portuguese professor Jean Fonseca told me that there are even diminutives that have turned into other words entirely. Camisa is the word for shirt in Portuguese, so camisinha would naturally lead you to believe that it’s a little shirt. Wrong. In Brazil, camisinha is in fact the popular name for a condom, a term employed to make the topic of safe sex more approachable.

“It was used as a strategy to popularise the condom among the people,” Fonseca said. “The original name ‘preservativo’ was nicknamed a ‘camisa-de-vênus’ (Venus’ shirt) after the Roman goddess of love. This then became ‘camisinha’.”

Using diminutives in Brazil is just as much a fun way of speaking as a literal one

But diminutives in Brazil have their own little subversive side as well. Such is their power they can make something bad sound like something good, something rude sound like something nice and something boring sound like something fun. Nowhere did I notice Brazilians take more advantage of this than with nicknames. I found this out when I visited the small coastal city of Rio das Ostras, a few hours' drive north-east from Rio. It was a place where not very many blonde gringos like myself pass through, making me a bit of a novelty. As I chatted with a local under the shady trees of a beachside kiosk while devouring some deliciously crunchy beef pastéis (pastry), she said she’d always wanted to meet her own Gasparzinho.

“A what?” I asked, not able to readily compute this diminutive. She got out her phone, went to Google images and pulled up a photo of Casper the Friendly Ghost. I burst out laughing. Being called ghostly white might not be the greatest compliment for an Aussie, but it was easier to swallow when phrased this way.

Diminutives can also be pejorative depending on the level of acid on the tongue. As Dr Bagno told me, “It can also be a way of dismissing a person”, noting that students will refer to a teacher they don’t care for as professorzinho.

Brazilians also use diminutives to save face, as an indirect way of saying something not entirely flattering. The most famous example of this is bonitinho/a, which comes from bonito/a, meaning ‘beautiful’. At first I assumed this was a compliment, and, depending on the situation, it can be. But in the Brazilian lexicon it’s also transformed to refer to someone who’s maybe not the best looking in the room but has their own charm. It could be the way a woman says “He’s a good guy, but I’m not interested”, or “Cute, but in the dreaded little-brother kind of way”. Ouch.

The diminutive is both an affectionate and cautious way of using language

One of Brazil’s most famous contemporary writers Luís Fernando Veríssimo summed up the whole confusing situation in his essay, Diminutivos, when he wrote of his country’s “obsession of reducing everything to the smallest dimension, be it a coffee, cinema or life”:

“The diminutive is both an affectionate and cautious way of using language. Affectionate because we usually use it to designate what is pleasant, those things so affable that they let themselves be diminished without losing their meaning. And cautious because we also use it to disarm certain words that, in their original form, are too threatening.”

What I’ve learnt during my time in Brazil is that you can’t take these diminutives too literally, but you should use them liberally. When you do, you’re truly on your way to talking like a Brazilian. And if you do find yourself in Brazil looking to practice this cute but complicated small talk, remember the first step: ask them to do it over a cervejinha. Practically nobody in Brazil will say no to that.

Lost in Translation is a BBC Travel series exploring encounters with languages and how they are reflected in a place, people and culture.

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