-chen is not a word in itself. It’s a sub element that is attached to the end of a word and the dictionary says its use is diminutive. That’s to say, it’s used to give the word a sense of small and perhaps cuteness.
-chen is attached to many words in German in some interesting ways. Probably the most common -chen is das Mädchen. The main part of Mäd is never used on its own. -chen is added to give it that diminutive or ‘cute’ – ‘niedlich’. Some would say it’s sexist but we must remember, language is an inheritance from the past. Every word in ever language is in its own way archaic or will be in the future.
So das Mädchen is and will remain the German word for ‘girl’ but then there’s another anomaly. All words ending in -chen are neuter. But remember, genders are mostly not a biological description but a grammatical classification. The table, der Tisch, is masculine, die Lampe feminine and das Handy is neuter. Although das Mädchen is grammatically neuter, she is biologically feminine.
So although we may talk about ‘das Mädchen‘ when we refer to her using a pronoun, the pronoun is ‘sie‘. There are, I understand, some dialects of German where they refer to das Mädchen using ‘es’ but this is very unusual!
So what other words end in -chen?
Das Märchen – fairy tale; das bisschen, more commonly ein bisschen – a little bit; das Kaninchen – rabbit a ‘little Kanin’ though Kanin is rarely used – in Physics das Teilchen is a microscopic particle; das Weibchen – in Biology feminine animal – das Männchen – similarly masculine animal but it can also refer to a little animated man.
And we can see another interesting feature – the vowel becomes Umlauted when you add the -chen. das Brot becomes das Brötchen and so on.
The use of -chen becomes even more interesting when people put it onto the end of all kinds of words.
Eine Weile becomes ein Weilchen – a little while; eine Stunde becomes ein Stündchen .
I love it when they add it to greetings; Hallo becomes Hallöchen! ‘little hello’ – you just can’t transate it! How about Tagchen! and tschüsschen – a (cute little) bye bye.
I found the ultimate strange and wonderful use of -chen in an advertising campaign for easyJet around 2004. To emphasise how small and ‘niedlich’ cute their prices are, they added the -chen to destinations. Amsterdam became Amsterdamchen – Barcelona was Barcelonachen and a usage that really made Liverpool small and ‘niedlich’ in an attractive way: Liverpoolchen.
There is no end to the inventiveness of language, especially the German language, which is why it’s so fascinating to study it.
Hopefully you’ll remember many of the useful words on this page – don’t bother trying to remember the easyJet destinations!