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Forming Italian Compound Nouns

Formazione Dei Nomi Composti


In Italian linguistics, composizione (composition) is the process by which a new word is formed by combining two or more words. The new term is called a composto (compound) or parola composto (compound word). The individual elements that form the compound word are called componenti (components). Examples include: fermare + carte » fermacarte (paperweight), pasta + asciutta » pastasciutta (dried pasta), cassa + panca » cassapanca (dresser), auto + strada » autostrada (highway).

The creation of compound words is one of the main means by which modern Italian increases its vocabulary (at one time, suffixation was the primary way). The formation of new words is particularly suited to the development of terminologie tecnico-scientifiche (scientific and technical terminology); consider, for example, the numerous compound nouns with Greek elements in the language of medicine: elettrocardiogramma (electrocardiogram), gastroscopia (gastroscopy), arteriosclerosi (arteriosclerosis), cancerogeno (carcinogenic), otorinolaringoiatra (otolaryngologist), etc.

The substituents of a compound need not be two (or more) forme libere, such as asciuga(re) and mano in asciugamano; they can also be two (or more) forme non libere, such as antropo- (from the Greek ánthrōpos 'man') and -fago (from the Greek phaghêin 'to eat') in antropofago 'he who eats human flesh." The Greek elements antropo- and -fago, unlike asciuga(re) and mano, do not exist as stand-alone words, but are found only in compound nouns.

Aside from this difference, another should be noted: in compound nouns such as asciugamano there is the sequence "verb (asciugare) + noun (mano)" while those such as antropofago have an inverse sequence: "noun (antropo- 'man') + verb (-fago 'to eat')." In any event, there is a fundamental property common to these two compounds: the implied, underlying phrase of both has a verbal predicate:

(qualcosa) asciuga (la) mano » asciugamano
(something) dries (the) hand » hand towel

(qualcosa) mangia (l') uomo » antropofago
(something) eats (the) man » cannibal

In other cases, however, the implied phrase of the compound has a nominal predicate; in other words, it is a sentence containing the verb essere:

(il) filo (è) spinato » filospinato
(the) wire (is) barbed » barbed wire

(la) cassa (è) forte » cassaforte
(the) box (is) strong » strongbox, safe

Compounds of the type asciugamano and antropofago are called composti con base verbale (compound nouns with a verbal base); those of the type filospinato and cassaforte are called composti con base nominale (compound nouns with a nominal base).


Noun + Noun / Nome + Nome
capo + stazione » capostazione (stationmaster)
capo + giro » capogiro (dizziness)
cassa + panca » cassapanca (dresser)
madre + perla » madreperla (mother-of-pearl)

Noun + Adjective / Nome + Aggettivo
cassa + forte » cassaforte (strongbox, safe)
pelle + rossa » pellerossa (redskin)

Adjective + Noun / Aggettivo + Nome
basso + rilievo » bassorilievo (bas relief)
franco + bollo » francobollo (stamp)
mezza + luna » mezzaluna (half-moon)

Adjective + Adjective / Aggettivo + Aggettivo
piano + forte » pianoforte (piano)
sordo + muto » sordomuto (deaf-mute)

Verb + Verb / Verbo + Verbo
dormi + veglia » dormiveglia (stupor, lethargy)
para + piglia » parapiglia (hurly burly)
sali + scendi » saliscendi (latch)

Verb + Noun / Verbo + Nome
apri + scatole » apriscatole (can opener)
lava + piatti » lavapiatti (dishwasher)
spazza + neve » spazzaneve (snowplow)

Verb + Adverb / Verbo + Avverbio
posa + piano » posapiano (slowpoke)
butta + fuori » buttafuori (bouncer)

Adverb + Verb / Avverbo + Verbio
bene + stare » benestare (approval, blessing, consent)
male + essere » malessere (unease, discomfort)

Adverb + Adjective / Avverbo + Aggettivo
sempre + verde » sempreverde (evergreen)

Preposition or Adverb + Noun / Preposizione o Avverbio + Nome
sotto + passaggio » sottopassaggio (underpass)
anti + pasto » antipasto (appetizer)
sopra + nome » soprannome (nickname)
dopo + scuola » doposcuola (after-school)

Head of the Class Compound Nouns
Among the compounds formed using the term capo (head) (in the figurative sense) as the first element, a distinction must be made between:

  • those in which the term capo indicates "one who commands," the "manager":

capo + scuola » caposcuola (dean)
capo + stazione » capostazione (stationmaster)
capo + classe » capoclasse (class president)

  • and those in which the element capo indicates either "excellence" or "beginning of something":
capo + lavoro » capolavoro (masterpiece)
capo + verso » caposcuola (paragraph, indent)

There are also other types of compounds, formed by disparate elements or in more diverse ways. Note the following examples:

capodanno = capo dell'anno (noun + preposition + noun) (New Year, end of the year)
pomodoro = pomo d'oro (noun + preposition + noun) (tomato)
buono-sconto = buono per ottenere uno sconto (discount ticket)
fantascienza = scienza del fantastico (science fiction)

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