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date: 06 June 2020

Personal Nouns (Agent Nouns) in the Romance Languages

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

As far as personal nouns are concerned, an agent noun is a derived noun whose general meaning is “person who usually/typically does . . .”. It is thus characterized by the feature [+ Human], irrespective of the fact that the person involved actually performs an action (e.g., French nageur “swimmer,” i.e., “a person who swims”), carries on a profession (e.g., Spanish carpintero “carpenter,” i.e., “a person who builds or repairs wooden structures”), adheres to a certain ideology or group (e.g., Italian femminista “feminist,” i.e., “a person who supports or follows the feminist movement”), etc.

Agent nouns can be both denominal and deverbal. Latin denominal agent nouns were mainly formed with –ARIUS, though the Latin agentive suffix par excellence was –TOR, which derived nouns from verbs. The reflexes of both –ARIUS and –TOR are widespread and highly productive in Romance: For the former, see Portuguese –eiro / –ario, Spanish –ero / –ario, Catalan –er, French –ier / –aire, Italian –aio / –aro / –ario, Romanian –ar, etc.; for the latter, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan –dor, French –eur, Italian –tore, Romanian –tor, etc. At any rate, the distinction between denominal and deverbal agent nouns is not always straightforward, as is shown by the Romance forms connected with Latin present particle –NTE: Whereas most of them display a verbal base (see, e.g., Italian cantante “singer” ← cantare “to sing”), some others do not (see, e.g., Italian bracciante “hired hand” ← braccio “arm”), allowing them to be regarded as denominal derivations.

The distribution of agentive suffixes in Romance is sometimes conditioned by borrowing phenomena. For example, Italian –iere is not a direct outcome of Latin –ARIUS, but rather a borrowing from French –ier; Sardinian –eri is of Spanish/Catalan origin, whereas Piedmontese –aire and –eur are loans from Occitan and French, respectively.

A theoretical issue that is related to agent nouns in Romance is the so-called agent-instrument-locative polysemy. While traditionally attributed to the result of metaphorical and/or semantic extensions, this polysemy is better explained by such factors as homonymization, ellipsis, analogy, borrowing/calque, though, at least in some cases, we cannot exclude that a combination of both explanation types has taken place.