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Learning Italian For Members

Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

Giampietro Vianello
Giampietro Vianello - [email protected]
Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller
Un alberello, or a little tree. While diminutives are straightforward in English, things are far trickier in Italian. Photo by Chaideer MAHYUDDIN / AFP

Italian grammar is notoriously difficult and diminutive suffixes are no exception. Here’s what you need to know about ‘shrinking’ Italian words.

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Diminutives are generally used to refer to a smaller (or, at times, cuter) version of a person, animal or object. 

But, while diminutives are fairly straightforward in English – the most common diminutives are formed with the prefix mini- or with suffixes -let and -y – things are far trickier in Italian.

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Italian has ten different diminutive suffixes and there are no precise grammatical rules regulating their use, meaning that there’s only one real way to know which ones to use and that is by picking them up as you go along.

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On top of that, suffixes for certain words might vary from region to region. For instance, a northern speaker would probably use freschino as the diminutive of fresco (chill), whereas a southern speaker would likely use freschetto.

But, amid a maelstrom of grammatical uncertainty, the good news is that most Italian words take only one of the following three diminutive suffixes: -ino, -etto and -ello.

A kitten being held

A slightly upset 'gattino' (kitten). Photo by David MCNEW / AFP

But, amid a maelstrom of grammatical uncertainty, the good news is that most Italian words take only one of the following three diminutive suffixes: -ino, -etto and -ello.

Ino is by far the most popular of the three and, like all other Italian suffixes, must be adequately declined based on the gender and number of the item it refers to:

Il gatto → il gattino – (male, singular)

The cat → the kitten

La ragazza → la ragazzina – (female, singular)

The girl → the little girl

Piedi → Piedini – (male, plural)

Feet → Little feet

Perle → perline – (female, plural)

Pearls → small pearls

Ino can sometimes be preceded by -ol or -ic. These interfixes only serve a phonetic purpose as they make the words they are used with sound more natural.

Un sasso → un sassolino

A stone → a small stone

Un libro → un libricino

A book → a little book

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A small book

Most Italians would describe the above book as a 'libricino'. Photo by Timothy A. CLARY / AFP

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Etto is the second-most popular diminutive suffix in Italy and is mostly used for feminine words, though it can also take some masculine ones.

Una scarpa → una scarpetta

A shoe → a little shoe

Una casa → una casetta

A house → a small house

Un bacio → un bacetto

A kiss → a little kiss

Finally, the suffix -ello is the least popular of the three, though some speakers, especially in the south of the country, use it quite frequently. Like -ino, -ello is sometimes preceded by the interfix -ic.

Un albero → un alberello

A tree → a little tree

Un asino → un asinello

A donkey → a little donkey

Un campo → un campicello

A field → a little field

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Other suffixes 

Besides the main suffixes (-ino, -etto, -ello), Italian has seven other diminutive suffixes, which are however all fairly rare.

The suffix -otto is used for some types of birds (e.g., passerotto, ‘little sparrow’, or aquilotto, ‘baby eagle’), whereas -acchiotto is mainly used for wolf and bear pups (lupacchiotto and orsacchiotto).

Wolf pup and his mother

A wolf pup is a 'lupacchiotto' in Italian. Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP

Uccio can express endearment towards the item it refers to, as in calduccio (‘a pleasant warmth’), but it can also have a derogative meaning. For instance, an affaruccio is a poor little deal.

Ucolo, -icchio and -iciattolo all have a pejorative connotation and each one of them is only used with a handful of words.

Un governo → un governicchio

A government → a puny little government

Il fiume → il fiumiciattolo

The river → the ugly little river

Finally, -icciolo is mostly used with porto (harbour) and festa (party), resulting in porticciolo and festicciola respectively.

Double-suffix words

Though we might never understand why, Italian speakers like to overcomplicate the language, which is why you’ll sometimes encounter words carrying not one but two suffixes. 

And, while these words may not be very popular in conversations between adults, they are fairly common in baby talk. 

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For instance, an Italian parent might ask their child to take a passettino (a very small passo, or step) or make a saltellino (a very small salto, or jump), with both words combining two different suffixes: -etto plus -ino, and -ello plus -ino.

Other common double-suffix words are: fiorellino (very small flower), stanzettina (very small room), pranzettino (nice little lunch) and quadrettino (very small painting).

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