Personal Nouns (Agent Nouns) in the Romance Languages
- Riccardo RegisRiccardo RegisDepartment of Humanities, University of Turin
An agent noun is a derived noun whose general meaning is ‘person who does . . .’. It is thus characterized by the feature [+ Human], regardless of whether the person involved actually performs an action (e.g., French nageur ‘swimmer’, i.e., ‘a person who swims’), carries out a profession (e.g., Spanish cabrero ‘goatherd’, i.e., ‘a person who looks after goats’), adheres to a certain ideology or group (e.g., Italian femminista ‘feminist’, i.e., ‘a person who supports or follows the feminist movement’), and so on. Agent nouns are for the most part denominal (as with cabrero and femminista above) and deverbal (as with nageur above). Latin denominal agent nouns were mainly formed with -arius, though the Latin agentive suffix par excellence was -tor, which derived nouns from verbs. Latin denominal agents were also formed with -ista, a borrowing from Greek -ιστήϛ. The reflexes of all three suffixes are widespread and highly productive in the Romance languages, as in the case of Portuguese/Spanish/Catalan/Occitan pescador ‘fisherman’ (-dor < -torem), French boucher ‘butcher’ (-er < -arium), and Romanian flautist (-ist < -ista). At any rate, the distinction between denominal and deverbal agent nouns is not always straightforward, as demonstrated by the Romance forms connected with the Latin present particle -nte, for whereas the majority display a verbal base (e.g., Italian cantante ‘singer’ ← cantare ‘to sing’), there are some which do not (e.g., Italian bracciante ‘hired hand’ ← braccio ‘arm’), thus allowing them to be regarded as denominal derivations. A minor group of agent nouns is made up of deadjectival derivations, often conveying a pejorative meaning; such is the case with Italian elegantone ‘person of overblown elegance’ (← elegante ‘elegant’) and French richard ‘very rich person’ (← riche ‘rich’).