Verb-noun compounds in Italian from the 16th century onwards: an increasing exploitation of an available word-formation pattern


Verb-noun compounds are typically considered to be one of the most important innovations in the domain of Romance word-formation (cf. Bauer 2011, among many others). This morphological innovation can also be seen as part of a general tendency in Romance languages to prefer head-initial structures across different levels of the language system (cf., e.g., Ledgeway 2012: 225). However, the question of the productivity of VN compounds arises immediately as there is evidence that the pattern has become extremely productive only recently. This paper investigates the question of the productivity of the VN compounds starting out with a distinction between availability of a word-formation pattern and its profitability (cf., e.g., Bauer 2001). This article shows that the structural presence—availability—of VN compounding seems to be diachronically constant, but that the quantitative exploitation of the pattern—its profitability—turns out to be a recent phenomenon. Following recent research on compounding in Spanish (Moyna 2011) and French (Rosenberg 2007, 2008, 2011), this paper takes one concrete example of the Italian VN compounds and proceeds to show its diachronic evolution from the 16th to the 19th century on the basis of data drawn from diachronic corpora as well as from major historical dictionaries. It demonstrates that the “dramatic increase” alluded to by Bauer (2011: 543) is not to be taken as a sign of a new structural innovation, but rather as a fortuitous exploitation of a well-settled word-formation pattern.

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  1. 1.

    The examples (1)–(4) are taken from Ledgeway (2012: 197–198, 211); the glosses are modified in order to reflect the relevant properties.

  2. 2.

    In fact, some examples of Latin VN compounds are typically taken to be late formations, for example versipellis (Adams 1976: 91) or labamanos (Migliorini 1960: 36). For a recent overview of compounding in Latin see Brucale (2012); for a thorough discussion of the head parameter in relation to the transition from Latin to Romance see Ledgeway (2011, 2012, 2015).

  3. 3.

    I follow here Bauer’s (2005: 330–331) comment on this distinction: “Although Corbin’s terminology is not widely used at the moment, it can be applied to subsequent discussion. For example, most of the work of Baayen is concerned with degrees of profitability rather than with the question of availability, although he treats availability as the extreme end of a scale of profitability.”

  4. 4.

    Ricca (2010: 246) refers to what I dub ‘base type frequency’ as a sort of “second order spectrum”.

  5. 5.

    “The main motivation for investigating this interesting word-formation procedure once again is given by the recent availability of data coming from very large textual corpora, which may be quite relevant from a theoretical perspective as well.”

  6. 6.

    See Marazzini (2009) for a history of the Italian lexicography.

  7. 7.

    For a recent discussion of the classification cf. Masini and Scalise (2012).

  8. 8.

    Cf. Ricca (2010: 251): “The fact that there are undoubtedly very few new formations with Event semantics (2.1 % of the hapax total) with respect to both Agentive and Instrument VN compounds is not enough to state that the former have undergone a substantial loss of productivity, because they are a minority among established words as well (4.8 % of all the non-hapax types), and it is likely that this semantic output has always been marginal in the history of Italian.”

  9. 9.

    It is perhaps worth noting that these two bases do not follow the disyllabicity criterion. This might be due not only to the rather weak status of this constraint, but also to their tendency to occur as nonce-formations, as hinted at by Ricca. Cf. footnote 10.

  10. 10.

    Cf. Ricca (2010: 247): “These bases play indeed a relevant role in nonce formations with noun modifier function, but do not seem to build many firmly lexicalized items.”

  11. 11.

    Table 1 is not exactly the way Moyna presents her data (2011: 206, Table 7.4); I propose here a different table where the progressive growth (obviously in terms of types given the lexicographic basis of the evidence) is captured better for each period.

  12. 12.

    The two anonymous reviewers rightly point out the limitations of such a sample but agree that what I call the base type frequency is important. I admit that a more comprehensive study that extends the present database beyond the set of twenty leading bases studied in the present analysis is certainly desirable, but will be left to future research.

  13. 13.

    One of the anonymous reviewers points out that apri- represents a weak verbal base in present-day Italian, too. In fact, I wish to argue that formations such as apribottiglie (‘bottle-opener’), apriscatole (‘box-opener’) etc. represent an innovation where the pattern is exploited for carrying the instrumental meaning.

  14. 14.

    The necessity to take into account also diachronically—strongly—active verbal bases is stressed by one of the reviewers. I am well aware of the fact that there may be potentially other bases, but I wish to leave such an expansion for future research.

  15. 15.

    A reviewer also suggested the inclusion of another major lexicographic work of the beginning of 19th century, namely Vocabolario universale italiano compilato a cura della società Tipografica Tramater e C (Naples, 1829–1840). I take this as an important challenge for future research. I remedy the absence of a diachronic link between Florio (1611) and Tommaseo (1879) with the discussion, however brief it may seem, of some special examples taken from Francesco Alberti di Villanova’s French–Italian/Italian–French dictionary (1771–1772) and from Grassi’s Dizionario militare italiano (1817).

  16. 16.

    All five editions are nowadays easily accessible at the official website of the Accademia della Crusca

  17. 17.

    In fact, one of the reviewers claims that “…the Crusca dictionary could have been judged scarcely useful even a priori…”. However, the scanty presence of VN compounds in the Crusca confirms also another point made by the same reviewer, namely the fact that VN compounding has always covered semantic areas which are essentially non-literary in character. I will return to this point below when dealing with other sources.

  18. 18.

    The facsimile of both editions (1598 and 1611) is accessible online at There is also a critical edition of the first edition A Worlde of Wordes. A critical edition with an introduction by Herman W. Haller, Lorenzo da Ponte Italian Library series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

  19. 19.

    In the following examples taken from Florio, I will cite his own vocabulary definitions as glosses.

  20. 20.

    Note that Florio’s dictionary is supposed to be a direct source for Antoine Oudin’s Recherches italiennes et françoises (1640). As a matter of fact, some of the Florio’s VN compounds turn up also in Oudin’s work with exactly the same definition, e.g., rompidente ‘un ignorant arracheur de dents’. See Mattarucco (2003: 38) for details on Oudin.

  21. 21.

    The literal glosses of these compounds are, respectively, flag-bearer, water-bearer, torch-bearer, bundles-bearer, guidon-bearer, wood-bearer, letters-bearer, chicken-bearer (metaphorical for a ‘pimp, procurer, pander’), rice-bearer, voice-bearer (‘spokesperson’).

  22. 22.

    As already mentioned above, one of the anonymous reviewers stresses the importance of the Tramater (1829–1840) in that the dictionary registers also a large amount of specialized VN compounds referring to various arts and professions. Since the Tramater builds largely on Alberti di Villanova’s work (cf. Marazzini 2009: 272), I take the brief mention of Alberti di Villanova as an essential starting point for future research.

  23. 23.

    I have consulted the edition from 1833–1834: Alberti di Villanova, F. (1833). Dictionnaire français–italien et italien–français. Tome premier, Livourne: F.lli Vignozzi. Alberti di Villanova, F. (1834). Dizionario italiano–francese e francese–italiano. Tomo secondo, Livorno: F.lli Vignozzi.

  24. 24.

    I have consulted the edition from 1833: Grassi, G. (1833). Dizionario militare italiano, in 2 voll. Torino: Società tipografico-libraria.

  25. 25.

    The textual database LIZ 4.0 also contains texts that are not representative of literary language. These subcorpora have been excluded here.

  26. 26.

    For the problems connected with the diachronic corpora, especially when it comes to assessing the productivity of various word-formation patterns, see Claridge (2008), Štichauer (2009), Lüdeling and Evert (2005), among others.

  27. 27.

    The agentive meaning of passaporto, now completely lost (as in other languages), is also the only registered by Florio who gives the equivalent of ferry-man.

  28. 28.

    “(…) most VN compound modifiers which cannot be considered as relational adjectives (…) could hardly be labelled as qualifying adjectives either. Rather, they express a looser kind of modification, with transient/eventive character, sometimes bordering on the function of a (reduced) relative clause.”

  29. 29.

    It must be stressed that the 19th cent. Tommaseo registers one formation with conta- (contapassi, ‘pedometer’), three compounds with reggi- (one of them, reggicatinelle, lit. hold-basins, is marked as archaic), and no compound with apri-. This situation clearly supports the view that the expansion of VN compounds with these verbal bases is a relatively recent phenomenon.


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This study is part of a larger project, Word-formation in Italian from the 16th to the 20th century, funded by GAČR (Czech Science Foundation), n. P406/12/0450. Versions of this paper were read at two conferences (9th Mediterranean Morphology Meeting in Dubrovnik, September 2013; 16th International Morphology Meeting in Budapest, May 2014) and presented as a seminar paper within the seminars organised by the Research Centre for Romance Linguistics at the University of Oxford, in October 2014. I am very grateful to Martin Maiden, J.C. Smith, Xavièr Bach, Davide Ricca, Antonietta Bisetto, Maria Rosenberg, Francesco Maria Ciconte, Jan Radimský and, last but not least, to the editors of this special issue for important comments and stylistic improvements they made, at different moments, on earlier versions of this paper. I also wish to express my gratitude to two anonymous reviewers for their critical, but very helpful and constructive comments on the first version of the paper. Any remaining errors and infelicities are my own responsibility.

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Štichauer, P. Verb-noun compounds in Italian from the 16th century onwards: an increasing exploitation of an available word-formation pattern. Morphology 26, 109–131 (2016).

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  • Word-formation
  • Italian
  • Verb-noun compounds
  • Productivity
  • Diachrony
  • 16th–19th centuries