Italian Word Formation

Italian word formation is a common topic of high-intermediate and advanced Italian CEFR exams.

In word formation, given a simple word, also known as a root word, you get another word by adding suffixes, prefixes, or another word altogether. This process also exists in English. Consider the following:

Caldo, calore, scaldare
Hot, heat, to heat

Amico, amicizia, amichevole
Friend, friendship, friendly

two friends in business suits

What elements are used to create words in Italian? Read on to find out all the secrets of Italian word formation!


Italian word formation

Let’s talk about word types

First, you must know that there are three types of words in Italian:

  • parole semplici, simple words
  • parole derivate, derived words
  • parole composte, compound words

Simple words are words that do not come from another Italian word. These are also called root words. Examples of root words are bello or alto.

Simple words don’t like to feel lonely. That’s why they have families, famiglie. A “word family”, a famiglia di parole, is made up of all possible derived and compound words of that given root word.

A word family is like a spiderweb. The little spider at its center is the root word. Then the web branches out: these are the derived and compound words.

For example, for the adjective bello, “nice, beautiful”, I can think of these other words:

  • bellezza, beauty
  • bellissimo, very beautiful
  • belloccio, beautiful guy
  • abbellire, to embellish
  • abbellimento, embellishment
  • … and more!

Part of its “spiderweb” could look like this…

"bello" limited word family

Now, root words are heavily used to create derived words. This is done with the help of prefixes and suffixes.


Derived words

Derived words are formed from another word + a prefix/suffix. Examples of derived words are:

  • pizzeria (pizza + suffix -ria)
  • sporcizia (sporco + suffix -izia)
  • rifare (prefix ri- + fare)
  • giornalista (giornale + suffix -lista, note that giornale is made up of giorno + suffix -ale)

The existence of longer derived words such as giornalista above means that you can derive words from another derived word. Some derived words can even have a prefix and a suffix, especially verbs.

Italian word formation with prefixes

A prefix is attached at the beginning of a word. The “pre” cluster is in itself a prefix, with the meaning of “before”. The Italian translation of “prefix” is prefisso.

Prefixes can be attached to nouns, verbs, and adjectives to form derived words. They don’t cause words to change category: nouns will remain nouns, verbs will remain verbs, and so on.

Let’s see the most common prefixes you can find (I won’t add a few that are uncommon.)

PrefixMeaningExample
a-negationatono
a-actionaddolcire
an-negationanallergico
ante-beforeantenato
anti-beforeantipasto
anti-againstantifurto
avan-beforeavanscoperta
arci-mucharcinemico
ben-wellbenvoluto
co-withcoinquilino
col/m/n/r-withcorrispondere
contra-againstcontraddire
contro-againstcontrovoglia
de-negationdecrescere
dis-negationdisgusto
extra-muchextravergine
extra-outsideextraterrestre
fuori-outsidefuorilegge
in-negationinfinito
in(n)-ongoing actioninnamorarsi
inter-betweenintervenire
intra-insideintravedere
iper-muchipercritico
iper-aboveipertensione
ipo-belowipotermia
mal-badmalocchio
multi-manymultiforme
neo-newneorealismo
non-negationnoncurante
pre-beforepreavviso
re-againrevisionare
retro-behindretroscena
ri-againrivedere
s-negationsgarbato
sopra-abovesoprannome
sotto-belowsottomarino
sovra-abovesovraccarico
stra-extremelystracolmo
super-abovesupermercato
ultra-extremelyultrasottile

Title: Italian All-in-One For Dummies
Language: English / Italian
Publisher: For Dummies
Pages: 672

Learn to speak Italian like a native? Easy.
Italian All-in-One For Dummies appeals to those readers looking for a comprehensive, all-encompassing guide to mastering the Italian language. It contains content from all For Dummies Italian language instruction titles, including Italian For Dummies, Intermediate Italian For Dummies, Italian Verbs For Dummies, Italian Phrases For Dummies, Italian Grammar For Dummies, and Italian For Dummies Audio Set.


Italian word formation with suffixes

A suffix is attached at the end of a word.

Just like in English, what starts as a noun can become an adjective (friend > friendly). What starts as an adjective may become a noun (weak > weakness), etc. This depends on the suffix itself. For example, English words ending in -ness are nouns.

Suffixes can be attached to nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives to form derived words. Let’s see the most common suffixes you can find (I won’t add a few that are uncommon.)

In the table below, I added a fourth column:

  • N means that the suffix creates a noun
  • V means that the suffix creates a verb
  • Av means that the suffix creates an adverb
  • Aj means that the suffix creates an adjective
SuffixMeaningExample
-abile“that who is or can do”affidabileAj
-aceoof, related toviolaceoAj
-aggiono meaningcoraggioN
-aio/aworkerfioraioN
-aiocontainerpollaioN
-aioloworkervignaioloN
-aleof, related toinvernaleAj
-amecollectionpollameN
-aneoof, related toestraneoAj
-ano/aoriginamericanoAj
-ante“that who does or is”abbondanteN, Aj
-anzaabstract nounfratellanzaN
-areof, related tolunareAj
-areverbsporcareV
-arioworkerbibliotecarioN
-ariocollectionarmamentarioN
-arioof, related toleggendarioAj
-atavariouspallonataN
-atovariouscampionatoN
-ente“that who does or is”pazienteN, Aj
-enzaabstract nounpazienzaN
-eriaworking placepizzeriaN
-eriaabstract nounporcheriaN
-eriacollectionbiancheriaN
-escovariousscimmiescoAj
-eseoriginmilaneseAj
-esimofaithcristianesimoN
-esimoordinal numberundicesimoAj
-etàabstract nouncontrarietàN
-eto/aplantationfruttetoN
-evole“that who is or can do”cedevoleAj
-ezzaabstract nounbellezzaN
-iaemotionallegriaN
-iaabstract nounastuziaN
-ibile“that who is or can do”irascibileAj
-icoof, related todeserticoAj
-ieracontainerteieraN
-iere/aworkerinfermieraN
-ificioworking placezuccherificioN
-inoworkerbagninoN
-ino/aoriginpiacentinoAj
-ioactionpigolioN
-ireverbchiarireV
-ismophenomenamagnetismoN
-ismophilosophyfascismoN
-ismopreferencemaschilismoN
-istaworker, followerdentistaN
-itaabstract noundormitaN
-itàabstract nouncapacitàN
-itudineabstract nounaltitudineN
-ivoof, aimed atsportivoN, Aj
-izzareverbsocializzareV
-iziaabstract nounsporciziaN
-menteadverbvelocementeAv
-mentoabstract nounpeggioramentoN
-oreabstract nounamoreN
-oso“having this quality”fumosoAj
-sioneabstract nounaccensioneN
-tàabstract nounliberN
-tore“that who does”lavoratoreN
-torioplacedormitorioN
-umecollection (bad)viscidumeN
-uraabstract actioncotturaN
-utanoun from verbvenutaN
-zioneabstract nounnegazioneN

Italian word formation in science

Scientific words also feature suffixes that have a specific meaning.

SuffixMeaningExample
-aceaplantgraminacea
-algiapainfibromalgia
-iatradoctorpediatra
-ideanimalcanide
-idechemical elementanidride
-inoanimalbovino
-logodoctorpodologo
-itesudden inflammationartrite
-osichronic inflammationartrosi
-omatumorsarcoma

Other suffixes

There are a few words that don’t seem to have suffixes at all. These are words that are derived from verbs and usually end in -o or -a, for example:

  • calma (calm, peace)
  • modifica (change, modification)
  • sosta (pause, break)
  • accordo (agreement)
  • conteggio (tally, count)

There is also another kind of suffix in Italian word formation that creates parole alterate, “altered words”. These suffixes, unlike the others we’ve seen, don’t change the meaning of the word. They describe it as smaller than usual, bigger than usual, nice, ugly, etc. These are descriptive suffixes.

For example, let’s take cane, dog. We can say:

  • cane, dog
  • cagnone, big dog
  • cagnolino, small and cute dog
  • cagnaccio, bad dog

Some common words can also feature two descriptive suffixes in a row: boccettina, from boccia + etta + ina.

Let’s see the most common descriptive suffixes (not all!) in the table below.

SuffixMeaningExample
-acchiotto/asmall or badfessacchiotta
-accio/abad, nastygattaccio
-agliacollection of junkferraglia
-astro/anasty thingfurbastro
-one/abiglibrone
-ello/asmallasinello
-etto/asmall and cuteorsetto
-iccio/abadmalaticcio
-icciolo/asmall and badfesticciola
-iciattolo/asth unimportantfiumiciattolo
-ino/asmalltavolino
-ognolo/asomewhat badgiallognolo
-otto/aaffectiongiovanotto
-uccio/acozy and tendercalduccio
-ucolo/asth unimportantattorucolo
-uolo/asth unimportantfaccenduola
-uzzo/asth unimportantpagliuzza

This is an advanced topic, but it’s worth writing about nonetheless. Verbs can also use descriptive suffixes to change their shade of meaning. Here are some:

SuffixMeaningExample
-acchiarebad actionsputacchiare
-azzarebad actionscopiazzare
-ellaresmall, ongoing actionsaltellare
-erellaresmall, ongoing actionbucherellare
-ettaresmall, ongoing actionscoppiettare
-icchiarebad actiondormicchiare

There is so much more to say about suffixes that describe nouns. Learn here how to use descriptive suffixes in Italian.


Compound words

Compound words are made up of at least two words. Examples of compound words are capostazione (capo + stazione), lavapiatti (lava + piatti), videochiamata (video + chiamata).

Some compound words are formed by two complete words, like the ones above. Their plural can be tough to learn.

Some other compound words, however, use prefixes or suffixes (these usually come from Latin or Greek), for example:

  • biblioteca (biblio is not a complete word)
  • televisione (tele is not a complete word)
  • topicida (cida is not a complete word)

Prefixes in compound words

The following table lists the most common prefixes that are used in compound words.

PrefixMeaningExample
aero-airaeroplano
auto-selfautocontrollo
biblio-bookbiblioteca
cosmo-universecosmonauta
demo-peopledemocrazia
eco-environmentecosistema
filo-loverfilodrammatico
mega-bigmegabyte
mono-onemonopattino
poli-manypoliclinico
psico-mindpsicologia
tele-far, distancetelevisione

Suffixes in compound words

The following table lists the most common suffixes that are used in compound words.

SuffixMeaningExample
-cidakillertopicida
-crate“that who has power”burocrate
-craziapowerburocrazia
-filolovercinofilo
-fobiafearidrofobia
-fugo“that who prevents”ignifugo
-logiastudy, disciplineerpetologia
-maniaun/healthy passionmitomania
-patiaillness or emotionretinopatia
-tecastoring placebiblioteca
-voro“that who eats”carnivoro

Dirty tricks and tips for Italian word formation

If you know a bit of Italian already, you may have noticed that many English words ending in -tion end in -zione in Italian:

  • selezione (selection)
  • educazione (education)
  • illuminazione (illumination)

And many words ending in -ty in English end in -tà in Italian:

  • libertà (liberty)
  • maturità (maturity)
  • povertà (poverty)

These words share their origin, so there are similarities between the two languages.

Other times, however, things are completely different: velocità, speed.

So in the following paragraphs, we will cover some “rules of thumb” you can apply in case you have no idea how to turn an Italian word into something else based on what you already know.

-er/or

Nouns ending in -er/or in English often end in -(t)ore/iere in Italian.

EnglishItalian
WorkerLavoratore
MinerMinatore
BankerBanchiere
DoctorDottore
ActorAttore
MotorMotore
AuthorAutore
AlligatorAlligatore
CreatorCreatore
ColorColore

Some exceptions are:

  • Umorismo (humor)
    Umore = mood
  • Comportamento (behavior)

Also note that some words can change root. Worker = lavoratore, from lavoro, “work”.

Always consult a dictionary!


-tion

Nouns ending in -tion in English often end in -zione in Italian.

EnglishItalian
EducationEducazione
SelectionSelezione
NationNazione
ExclamationEsclamazione
PotionPozione
CelebrationCelebrazione
SituationSituazione
EmotionEmozione
AdmirationAmmirazione
AttentionAttenzione

Some exceptions are:

  • Durata (duration)
    NOT durazione
  • Abominio (abomination)
    NOT abominazione
  • Rapimento (abduction)
    Adduzione = adduction
  • Asta (auction)
    Auzione is deprecated

-ty

Nouns ending in -(ili)ty in English often end in -(ili)tà in Italian.

EnglishItalian
LibertyLiber
PropertyProprie
CrueltyCrudel
DifficultyDifficol
HonestyOnes
HumanityUmani
AuthorityAutori
CuriosityCuriosi
QualityQuali
HumidityUmidi
CityCit
PossibilityPossibilità
VisibilityVisibilità
SensibilitySensibilità
ProbabilityProbabilità

Some exceptions are:

  • Carie (tooth cavity)
    Cavità = hole, recess
  • Sicurezza (safety)
    From sicuro, “safe”
  • Ansia (anxiety)
    Ansietà exists but it’s not used
  • Bellezza (beauty)
  • Dovere (duty)
  • Uguaglianza (equality)
    Equalità exists but it’s not used
  • Modestia (modesty)
    NOT modestà

-nce

Nouns ending in -nce in English often end in -nza in Italian.

EnglishItalian
PatiencePazienza
InnocenceInnocenza
EleganceEleganza
EvidenceEvidenza
SequenceSequenza
PresencePresenza
ImportanceImportanza
ConvenienceConvenienza
AbsenceAssenza
ViolenceViolenza
ExistenceEsistenza
ScienceScienza

Some exceptions are:

  • Difesa (defense)
    NOT defense/difenza
  • Silenzio (silence)
    NOT silenza
  • Pubblico (audience)
    Udienza = meeting, hearing

-ment

Nouns ending in -ment in English often end in -mento in Italian. Many words don’t share a root, however, and many others are completely different, so be careful.

EnglishItalian
LamentLamento
PaymentPagamento
DocumentDocumento
ParliamentParlamento
InstrumentStrumento
MovementMovimento
ApartmentAppartamento
MomentMomento
TormentTormento
ElementElemento
AppointmentAppuntamento

Some exceptions are:

  • Spedizione (shipment)
    NOT spedimento
  • Meraviglia (amazement)
  • Cantina, seminterrato (basement)
    Basamento = base, pedestal
  • Abbandono (abandonment)
    Abbandonamento is deprecated
  • Balsamo (ointment)
  • Annuncio (announcement)
    NOT annunciamento
  • Delusione (disappointment)
  • Espulsione, esilio (banishment)
    NOT bannamento
  • Accordo (agreement)
  • Risultato, conquista (achievement)
  • Impegno (commitment)
  • Pubblicità (advertisement)
  • Allegato (email attachment)
    Attaccamento = bond, emotional attachment

-able

Quite a few adjectives ending in -ble in English end in -bile in Italian. Many roots change.

EnglishItalian
UsableUtilizzabile
DoableFattibile
WashableLavabile
WearableIndossabile
AdorableAdorabile
MiserableMiserabile
StableStabile
ReliableAffidabile
MoveableMovibile
FlammableInfiammabile

Some exceptions are:

  • Capace (capable)
    NOT capabile
  • Incapace (incapable)
    NOT incapabile
  • Prezioso (valuable)
    Valutabile = evaluable, assessable
  • Rilevante, notevole (notable)
    Notabile is almost always used to translate “prominent, well-known”

-sion

Nouns ending in -sion in English often end in -sione in Italian.

EnglishItalian
VisionVisione
MissionMissione
DecisionDecisione
CompassionCompassione
ComprehensionComprensione
TensionTensione
ConfusionConfusione
ExplosionEsplosione
PassionPassione

Some exceptions are:

  • Permesso (permission)
    NOT permissione, it exists but it’s not used
  • Impulso, pulsione (compulsion)
    Compulsione, compulsività = compulsiveness
  • Possesso (possession)
    NOT possessione, it exists but it’s not used

-ism

Nouns ending in -ism in English often end in -ismo in Italian.

EnglishItalian
FascismFascismo
BuddhismBuddismo
RacismRazzismo
CapitalismCapitalismo
EgoismEgoismo
AltruismAltruismo
HeroismEroismo
AutismAutismo
AtheismAteismo
CynicismCinismo

An exception is:

  • Battesimo (baptism)

-ist

Nouns ending in -ist in English often end in -ista in Italian.

EnglishItalian
JournalistGiornalista
DentistDentista
CapitalistCapitalista
NarcissistNarcisista
ActivistAttivista
PianistPianista
ArtistArtista
CyclistCiclista
AlchemistAlchimista
ProtagonistProtagonista

Some exceptions are:

  • Ateo (atheist)
    Ateista exists but it’s uncommon
  • Biologo (biologist)
    NOT biologista, although it exists
  • Sadico (sadist)
    NOT sadista
  • Chimico (chemist)
  • Botanico (botanist)
    Botanista exists but it’s uncommon

-ly

Adverbs that end in ly in English often end in -mente in Italian.

EnglishItalian
DirectlyDirettamente
GenerallyGeneralmente
NaturallyNaturalmente
TotallyTotalmente

-al

Adjectives ending in -al in English often end in -ale in Italian.

EnglishItalian
BrutalBrutale
AnnualAnnuale
InformalInformale
AnimalAnimale
LegalLegale
PersonalPersonale
FinalFinale
LocalLocale
CentralCentrale
HorizontalOrizzontale

Some exceptions are:

  • Magico (magical)
    NOT magicale
  • Medico (medical)
    NOT medicale
  • Logico (logical)
    NOT logicale
  • Identico (identical)
  • Classico (classical)
    NOT classicale
  • Emotivo (emotional, sensitive)
    Emozionale = “sth involving emotions”
  • Immaginario, finto (fictional)

-ic

Adjectives ending in -ic(al) in English often end in -ico in Italian.

EnglishItalian
AutomaticAutomatico
EconomicEconomico
IronicIronico
PublicPubblico
TypicalTipico
PoliticalPolitico

An exception is:

  • Basilare (basic)
    Basico is used in chemistry

-an

Adjectives ending in -an in English often end in -ano/a in Italian.

EnglishItalian
AmericanAmericano
ItalianItaliano
AustralianAustraliano
HumanUmano
ChristianCristiano
UrbanUrbano
OrphanOrfano
OceanOceano

Some exceptions are:

  • Tedesco (German)
    Germano = ancient northern European
  • Civile (civilian)
    NOT civiliano
  • Barbaro (barbarian)
    NOT barbariano
  • Anfibio (amphibian)
    NOT anfibiano
  • Europeo (European)
    NOT europeano
  • Musicista (musician)

-ous

Adjectives ending in -ous in English often end in -oso/a in Italian.

EnglishItalian
FamousFamoso
GloriousGlorioso
NervousNervoso
JealousGeloso
GenerousGeneroso
DisastrousDisastroso
PreciousPrezioso
ReligiousReligioso
Some exceptions are:
  • Ridicolo (ridiculous)
    NOT ridicoloso, deprecated
  • Tremendo (tremendous)
    NOT tremendoso
  • Enorme (enormous)
    NOT enormoso
  • Cauto (cautious)
    NOT cautoso
  • Simultaneo (simultaneous)
    NOT simultaneoso

-ate

Adjectives ending in -ate in English often end in -ato/a in Italian.

EnglishItalian
IsolateIsolato
AppropriateAppropriato
AdequateAdeguato
DelicateDelicato
DeliberateDeliberato
AccurateAccurato

Some exceptions are:

  • Affettuoso (affectionate)
    Affezionato = emotionally attached
  • Compassionevole (compassionate)
    NOT compassionato
  • Cortese, premuroso (considerate)
    Considerato = considered, evaluated

-y

Weather adjectives ending in -y in English often end in -oso/a in Italian.

EnglishItalian
CloudyNuvoloso
RainyPiovoso
SmokyFumoso
HazyNebbioso

-ness and -ship

Nouns ending in -ness and -ship are tricky. In Italian, they usually end with a suffix that is used for abstract nouns, but no rule of thumb makes it easy for you to guess which one it is. Words rarely share a root. Examples:

EnglishItalian
DrynessSecchezza
MadnessPazzia
DarknessOscuri
AwarenessConsapevolezza
IllnessMalattia
BitternessAmarezza
WetnessUmidi
HardshipAvversi
OwnershipProprie
CensorshipCensura
FriendshipAmicizia
InternshipApprendistato
MembershipIscrizione
CitizenshipCittadinanza

-ary

Nouns ending in -ary often end in -ario in Italian.

EnglishItalian
DictionaryDizionario
SanctuarySantuario
AnniversaryAnniversario
VocabularyVocabolario

-ive

Adjectives ending in -ive often end in -ivo in Italian.

EnglishItalian
OffensiveOffensivo
PassivePassivo
ActiveAttivo
AggressiveAggressivo

-ect

Adjectives ending in -ect often end in -etto in Italian.

EnglishItalian
PerfectPerfetto
DirectDiretto
CorrectCorretto

-cate

Verbs ending in -cate often end in -care in Italian.

EnglishItalian
EducateEducare
IndicateIndicare
ComplicateComplicare

-ize/ise/yze/yze

Verbs ending in -ize/ise/yze/yze often end in -izzare in Italian.

EnglishItalian
AnalyzeAnalizzare
MinimizeMinimizzare
OrganizeOrganizzare


Italian word formation VS English word formation: A recap

As our lesson is getting quite long, let’s review the main tricks we have seen so far.

You can also download this list as a handy PDF cheatsheet.

EnglishItalian
-er/or-(t)ore/iere
-tion-zione
-(ili)ty-(ili)tà
-nce-nza
-ment-mento
-ble-bile
-sion-sione
-ism-ismo
-ist-ista
-al-ale
-an-ano/a
-ous-oso/a
-ate-ato/a
-y (weather)-oso/a
-ness, -shipgood luck

And that’s the end of our guide to the Italian word formation! If you still have any doubts, feel free to leave a comment.


Now what?

Now that you’ve seen how the Italian word formation works, you might want to keep learning Italian online with these free Italian resources:

Or you might also want an excellent offline Italian grammar resource to take with you at all times (Amazon).

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