Ragazzino, topolino, bambinello… All these Italian words have something in common. They use suffixes, special endings, to modify their meanings. Ragazzino is “little boy” in contrast to ragazzo, “boy”. Topolino is a ‘little mouse’ rather than just a “mouse”--topo. And bambinello is a “poor little child” instead of a bambino, “child”.
A suffix is a letter or group of letters that is added to the end of a word to create a new word, often with a different grammatical function.
Let’s look at a concrete example: if you take the verb “to act” and attach various suffixes to it, you can produce a multitude of new words, including nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and additional verbs. Just think of “actor”, “actress”, “action”, “active”, “actively”, “activity”, “activist”, “activism”, “activate”, and the list goes on…
A highly dynamic language, Italian features a special category of suffixes called “modifying suffixes” (or alterazioni). It works just like an adjective–but without the need of one! They express a distinct quality and add particular shades of meaning to the original noun. Unlike the usual suffixes, though, they do not change it radically: the core meaning always stays intact, and so does the original syntactic category–to put it simply, nouns don’t turn into adjectives and vice versa.
If you still have no clue what I am referring to, I’ll try to give you a hint. What do the words “mommy” and “birdie”, but also “duckling” and “piglet”, all have in common? That’s right: they have an affectionate and personal touch to them, or even a specific diminutive connotation, given by the tiny letters at the end--“-my”, “-ie”, “-ling”, “-let”.
In English, there are few suffixes like these. In Italian, in contrast, these mechanisms for word formation are frequent both in everyday conversations and literature.
They are indeed highly effective in terms of language accuracy, conciseness and creativity. They help convey a broad spectrum of information without the need for extra words and simply allow the speaker to express him or herself better in certain situations–a well-chosen suffix is the icing on the cake of your sentences!
But can these suffixes really be used to qualify any word?
As a general rule, the shorter and more common a noun is, the more suffixes it is likely to take on. Moreover, concrete nouns use them to a far greater extent than abstract nouns.
Even personal names can be modified by suffixes, usually connoting smallness or affection. For instance, Antonio turns into the more endearing Tonino, Luigi into Gigino, Simona into Simonetta, Carla into Carletta, and Maria into Mariuccia. When used as sporadic nicknames, they retain their function as terms of endearment; however, they can also become names in their own right.
From a grammatical point of view, suffixes have to agree in gender and number with the noun they are modifying. There are however some instances in which the gender of a word changes when a suffix is added to it; this is the case for:
Another exception regards the spelling of the root, which might change when it takes on a suffix. Here are some examples:
Modifying suffixes can produce four different categories of alteration. Let’s have a look at each of them!
Diminutives are a category of suffixes which indicate smallness, thus attenuating or diminishing in some way the meaning of the original noun.
In addition to noting the size of something or someone, they tend to add slight nuances of either affection and tenderness or pity and insignificance. It is usually the context that suggests which particular shade of meaning is intended by the speaker.
Common in baby talk, diminutives are the richest category of altered words in Italian. If you are looking for the right suffix, you will be spoiled for choice! Moreover, combinations of these suffixes occur frequently, thus offering plenty of further options…
This is one of the few suffixes that can be used–mainly in the spoken language–to modify adverbs. Have a look at some examples you might hear in everyday conversations:
Its two variants, –(i)cino and –olino, are also very common:
This suffix has two variants, –(i)cello and –erello, as in:
It often occurs within the compound suffix –ellino (as in fiorellino, “small flower”, and agnellino, “little lamb”).
This frequently used in combination with other suffixes, such as –ettino (as in pacchettino, “little package”, and panchettino, “small bench”).
Augmentatives, the opposite of diminutives, convey a sense of largeness in size or of generic grandness.
The most common suffixes in this category include:
This suffix has a unique peculiarity--when it is attached to a feminine noun, it alters the gender of the word and turns it into masculine. The feminine form “-ona” does exist, but it is used very rarely.
Vezzeggiativi come into play when we want to evoke the grace, affection, tenderness or sympathy that characterized our relation to the object or person we are describing.
The most common suffixes in this category include:
Its variant –uzzo is also prolific:
This suffix, as well as its compound form -acchiotto, is used to refer to the young of animals, as in:
Last but not least, pejoratives are used to point out the negative aspects of something. They can express a wide range of feelings, from dislike to disregard and contempt.
Pejoratives can be formed with the following suffixes:
In addition, older suffixes in this category exist including -onzolo, -ucolo and -uncolo (as in ladruncolo, :petty thief”, or omuncolo, “insignificant man”).
Watch out for false suffixes. Many Italian nouns have endings that sound like suffixes, but they are actually not related. Here are some examples:
Moreover, there are some instances where new words created with the use of modifying suffixes were lexicalized, i.e. they became words in their own right.
This was the case for fumetto, the Italian word for “comics”. It originated from the typical speech balloons, which look indeed like little clouds of smoke (fumo), but is now a word in and of itself.
The same goes for the word pair forchetta (fork) vs. forca (gardening fork), and even more for lancetta (clock hand) vs. lancia (lance). In both cases, the former word originally derived from the latter, but eventually developed an independent meaning, which is no longer deducible from the original word.
Modifying suffixes is a very Italian way of creating new words, which means that you’ll come across plenty of them, both in conversation and print, when learning this language.
At first, you will probably stick to the forms you have heard or read from native speakers. However, at some point, you might even be ready to unleash your creativity and coin some neologisms yourself. And that’s where the trouble begins: the composition of altered nouns is not straightforward and there are no hard and fast rules to guide you. Their appropriateness is also highly dependent on context, communicative situation, and audience.
In addition, suffixes cannot be added indiscriminately to all nouns. Some nouns do not accept them at all, others combine with some suffixes but not with others, and only very few of them can be matched with all suffixes.
Sounds tricky, right? Well, it won’t be, if you keep these useful tips on word formation in mind.
First and foremost, identify the word root; this is an essential step if you want to make sure the word you’re creating is grammatically correct.
Then you have to choose the right suffix. As earlier mentioned, there is no specific rule on how to combine words and suffixes; however, you can follow these two key principles:
When in doubt, consult a dictionary or ask a native speaker!
To conclude, getting your head around -ino’s, -etto’s and -uccio’s will be difficult at first–they might not even sound like real words to you. However, with some practice and the right motivation, you will soon be able to grasp the nuances given by the various suffixes and express yourself more naturally in Italian.
The 20th-century writer Gianni Rodari was famous his nursery rhymes, in which he played with suffixes and false suffixes. Here is “Filastrocca corta e gaia”, one of the most splendid examples of his work – enjoy! How many altered nouns can you count?
corta e gaia,
la botte più grossa
non è un bottone,
la mela più rossa
non è un melone,
ed il mulo
non sarà mai un mulino.”
short and gay,
the biggest barrel
is not a button,
the most red apple
is not a melon,
and the mule
will never be a mill.
About the Author: Viola Librenti is a translator who, as part of her work, translates for Drops.
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