Sometimes an Italian noun can be modified to express a particular quality (large, small, pretty, ugly) without using a qualifying Italian adjective. These nouns are created by taking the root of the noun and adding a suffix such as -ino, -one, -etto, or -accio. Italian nouns formed this way are called i nomi alterati (altered, or modified, nouns). Italian grammarians refer to this type of suffix modification as alterazione (alteration).
There are four types of nomi alterati: diminutivi (diminutives), accrescitivi (augmentatives), vezzeggiativi (pet names or terms of endearment), and peggiorativi or dispregiativi (pejoratives or derogatory terms). Most common Italian nouns can be modified, but keep in mind that the gender and number of the suffix must agree with the noun.
Using Nomi Alterati
How and when are modified Italian nouns used? Unlike, for example, choosing auxiliary verbs or forming plural adjectives, Italian speakers are never required to use nomi alterati. There are no hard and fast grammar rules for when it's appropriate, in conversation or print, to use them. Rather, it's a personal linguistic choice-some people use them frequently, and others tend to use adjectives instead.
It also depends on the audience, the setting, and on the level of rapport between the parties. In certain situations, some modified Italian nouns would be inappropriate or out of context. But using a well-chosen nome alterato, pronounced with the right inflection and tone, can communicate volumes. In one sense, it's analogous to humor-timing is everything.
Alterati Diminutivi (Diminutives)
A diminutivo usually conveys such meanings as: small, tiny. The following are examples of suffissi alterativi (alternate endings) used to form diminutivi (diminutives):
-ino: mamma-mammina; minestra-minestrina; pensiero-pensierino; ragazzo-ragazzino
-(i)cino (a variant of -ino): bastone-bastoncino; libro-libric(c)ino
-olino (a variant of -ino): sasso-sassolino; topo-topolino; freddo-freddolino; magro-magrolino
-etto: bacio-bacetto; camera-cameretta; casa-casetta; lupo-lupetto; basso-bassetto; piccolo-piccoletto. Frequently used concurrently with other suffixes: scarpa-scarpetta-scarpettina; secco-secchetto-secchettino
-ello: albero-alberello; asino-asinello; paese-paesello; rondine-rondinella; cattivo-cattivello; povero-poverello
-(i)cello (a variant of -ello): campo-campicello; informazione-informazioncella
-erello (a variant of -ello): fatto-fatterello; fuoco-f(u)ocherello. Frequently used concurrently with other suffixes: storia-storiella-storiellina; bucco-bucherello-bucherellino
-icci(u)olo: asta-asticci(u)ola; festa-festicciola; porto-porticciolo; sometimes can also have a pejorative sense: donna-donnicci(u)ola
-(u)olo: faccenda-faccenduola; montagna-montagnuola; poesia-poesiola
-otto: contadino-contadinotto; pieno-pienotto; giovane-giovanotto; ragazzo-ragazzotto; basso-bassotto. The ending also refers to a juvenile animal: aquila-aquilotto; lepre-leprotto; passero-passerotto
-iciattolo (considered a diminutive/pejorative combination): febbre-febbriciattolo; fiume-fiumiciattolo; libro-libriciattolo; mostro-mostriciattolo
Alterati Accrescitivi (Augmentatives)
An accrescitivo usually conveys such meanings as: large, big, grand. It is the opposite of a diminutive. The following are examples of suffissi alterativi (alternate endings) used to form accrescitivi (augmentatives):
-one: febbre-febbrona (febbrone); libro-librone; pigro-pigrone; mano-manona (manone); ghiotto-ghiottone. Frequently used concurrently with other suffixes: uomo-omaccio-omaccione; pazzo-pazzerello-pazzerellone. Sometimes the intermediate term is not used in contemporary Italian: buono-bonaccione
-acchione (has an ironic connotation): frate-fratacchione; volpe-volpacchione; furbo-furbacchione; matto-mattachione
Alterati Vezzeggiativi (Pet Names or Terms of Endearment)
A vezzeggiativo usually conveys such meanings as: affection, sympathy, enjoyment, grace. The following are examples of suffissi alterativi (alternate endings) used to form vezzeggiativi (pet names or terms of endearment):
-acchiotto (considered a diminutive/pet name combination): lupo-lupacchiotto; orso-orsacchiotto; volpe-volpacchiotto; furbo-furbacchiotto
-uccio: avvocato-avvocatuccio; casa-casuccia; cavallo-cavalluccio; caldo-calduccio; freddo-fredduccio
-uzzo (a variant of -uccio): pietra-pietruzza
Paolo, a native Italian speaker from Milano, gives an example of how vezzeggiativi are used: "I have a friend who calls me Paoletto. This doesn't sound very much like a man, of course, but it's out of affection. More realistically, my brother calls me Paolone, Big Paolo."
Alterati Peggiorativi (Pejoratives)
A peggiorativo usually conveys such meanings as: contempt, defiance, disdain, scorn (for), disregard, self-contempt, self-disgust. The following are examples of suffissi alterativi (alternate endings) used to form peggiorativi (pejoratives):
-ucolo: donna-donnucola; maestro-maestrucolo; poeta-poetucolo
-accio: coltello-coltellaccio; libro-libraccio; voce-vociaccia; avaro-avaraccio
-azzo (a variant of -accio): amore-amorazzo; coda-codazzo
-astro (has a pejorative sense when the root is a noun, and an attenuated sense when the root is an adjective): medico-medicastro; poeta-poetastro; politico-politicastro; bianco-biancastro; dolce-dolciastro; rosso-rossastro
Spelling Changes to Noun Root
When creating i nomi alterati, a few nouns undergo a spelling change to the root when modified. For example:
Sex Changes to Noun Root
In some instances the root noun changes gender when creating i nomi alterati. For example:
barca (feminine noun)-un barcone (masculine noun): a large boat
donna (feminine noun)-un donnone (masculine noun): a big (large) woman
febbre (feminine noun)-un febbrone (masculine noun): very high fever
sala (feminine noun)-un salone (masculine noun): a large room
Certain nouns that appear to be nomi alterati are actually nouns in and off themselves. For example, the following forms are falsi alterati (false altered nouns):
tacchino (not the diminutive of tacco)
bottone (not the augmentative of botto)
mattone (not the augmentative of matto)
focaccia (not the pejorative of foca)
occhiello (not the diminutive of occhio)
burrone (not the augmentative of burro)
colletto (not the diminutive of collo)
collina (not the diminutive of colla)
limone (not the augmentative of lima)
cerotto (not the augmentative of cero)
In addition, be aware when creating nomi alterati that not all nouns can be combined with all suffixes. Either the term sounds off-key to the ear (Italian is a musical language, after all), or the resulting word is linguistically awkward. In general, the repetition of the same sound element in both the root and suffix should be avoided: tetto can be modified into tettino or tettuccio, but not tettetto; contadino can be modified into contadinello or contadinetto, but not contadinino. It's best to use only forms you have observed in print or heard used by native speakers. When in doubt, consult a dictionary.
On the other hand, if you want to stretch your creative language skills, try coining a neologismo (neologism). Matching nouns with previously unused modifying suffixes is one way that new words are formed. After all, you'd get a big laugh from native Italians if, after eating an unappetizing pizza, you were to declare, "Che pizzaccia!".