A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


La bella lingua Part 3

22 February 2013

Virtuoso suffixes


A liutaio is a business that makes stringed instruments such as violins, guitars, or lutes (the latter which distinguishes the trade name).  This one, in Cremona, Italy, displays in its window works-in-progress from the violin family.  The term ‘lute’ derives from the Arabic al-‘ud, meaning ‘the wood’; the instrument was introduced to Europe in the ninth century, when Moors brought the Oud to Spain.  Various suffixes differentiate the members of the violin family, as discussed below.


We began Part 1 of this blog entry with a discussion of the multitalented word “piano.”  In Part 2 we talked about falsi amici and names for types of pasta.  Now we may as well end with, well, endings — in particular, some endings of names for a few other instruments besides the piano.

Did you notice any patterns in some of the word-endings in the list of pasta types in Part 2? How about -etti (masculine plural) as in spaghetti; –ine (feminine plural) as in fettuccine; -elli (masculine plural; note here that a 'c' is added due to the preceding vowel) as in vermicelli; or –otti (masculine plural) as in manicotti?  These are diminutive suffixes.  Other words in the list have an augmentative suffix:  -oni (masculine plural) as in rigatoni.

This is another virtuoso aspect of the Italian language.  Take any word and make it shrink or grow with just a few extra letters.

House? Casa.  Little house?  Casino (also a good place to lose your own house).  A large, ugly house (like a tenement building)? Casone.  Rudimentary little house (that is, a hut or shed)?  Casotto. A cute little house? Casetta (-etta, in addition to signifying tiny, also implies a certain degree of endearment).  I should mention as well that this last example is the term from which the name for a prehistoric recording medium (at least, pre-DAT, pre-CD, and pre-mp3) derives:  the cassette tape, due to the fact that the tape resides in a “little house” rather than on an open reel.

Now, only to confuse matters, if you hear someone say, "Mi piace un casino" — that means, "I like it a lot."


A casa-in-progress in the Italian Alps on the Swiss border


Just be careful to recognize that not all of the –inos that you run across necessarily mean small; this suffix can also indicate a place of origin, as in the case of the Renaissance painter Perugino, who, while originally named Pietro Vannucci, hailed from Umbria, whose chief city is Perugia. You may also be familiar with Perugina (the feminine form of the word), the chocolate company from the same city that produces those wonderful little Baci (kisses).


Pietro Perugino (c. 1446/1450–1523), self-portrait (1497–1500; Sala delle Udienze del Collegio del Cambio, Perugia)

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Perugino’s contemporary, the painter Giorgione, however, had a name that really means "Big George."  And the name of the somewhat later Renaissance painter, Tintoretto, derives from the fact that his father was a dyer — tintore — hence the son was a “little dyer.”

How about some bread with your pasta?  Pane. Little bread (as a roll)?  Panino (this term also applies to sandwiches made on such bread rolls).  Endearing little bread?  Panetto (don’t ask me what Leon Panetta, the outgoing United States Secretary of Defense, has to do with little bread, unless he’s on a low-carb diet).  Little bread —in this case, shaped in a ring?  Pagnotta.  Big bread? Panettone — the northern Italian brioche with candied fruit that one finds everywhere at Christmas.

Now, on to some musical instruments, as promised.

A trumpet?  Tromba.  A big trumpet?  Trombone (you know, the brass instrument with a slide).  And then there’s even a toy trumpet: trombetta.

Or take the viola, a sort of base line (I didn’t say bass — you’ll see what I mean) for the string family.  Make the viola smaller:  violino (or what we call the violin in English).


Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri (del Gesù) (1687-1745), violin (ca. 1740, Cremona; bequest of Jascha Heifetz to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco)


Now make the viola big:  violone (one of several ancestors of the modern contrabass).

OK, now this gets a little tricky. Make it a bit smaller than ‘big’, but still bigger than a viola.  For this we need to add –one for big and then –ello for small, dropping the first ‘e’ and adding a ‘c’:  violoncello, or ‘cello as we know the instrument, whose name now usually exists only as a diminutive suffix.

Seems like it would give someone a complex to have a mere diminutive suffix for a name.


left to right: violin, contrabass, and 'cello in a vibrant performance


The same goes for the piccolo.  The full designation for the instrument is flauto piccolo (“small flute”).  Now it just goes by the name “small,” being another instrument having a cause to feel inferior.

Italian tempo markings also expand and contract according to their suffixes.  (A tempo marking gives a general indication as to how fast or slow a piece of music is to be played.)

Allegro, which means cheerful, suggests that the music be taken fast and lively.  The diminutive allegretto implies a tempo slower than allegro, or just a little fast.  Larghetto, on the other hand, implies a tempo faster than largo, or a little slow.  You can see how easy it is to get in trouble here.

Ludwig van Beethoven, in his letters, considered Italian tempo markings “senseless” remnants from a “barbarous” period of music.  First, he wondered why allegro, used for fast tempi, would be used for music that may not be cheerful, the word’s literal meaning.

Also in his letters, Beethoven mentioned his dislike for the tempo marking andantino.  Andante (without the diminutive suffix) is the present participle of andare, meaning “to go” — generally interpreted as walking speed.  In the case of andantino, would a “little walking speed” be faster or slower than walking speed?  Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Czerny thought it should be faster, because he considered andante slow.  However, another contemporary, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, thought andantino should be slower than andante.


Facsimile of a page from the autograph manuscript of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in c minor, op. 67 (1808; Beethoven-Gedenkstätte Heiliger Testament, Vienna). Was Beethoven cheerfully scribbling out Italian tempo markings?


To eliminate any uncertainty, Beethoven advocated the use of the metronome, an invention of his friend Johann Nepomuk Mälzel.  This device indicates a specified number of beats per minute, useful for setting the tempo of a piece of music.

Unfortunately, most of Beethoven’s metronome markings in his scores are unrealistically fast. Considering the fact that Mälzel also provided Beethoven with ear trumpets (a form of hearing aid) when the composer was going deaf, it kind of makes one wonder if these metronome markings also functioned like product placements in Hollywood films. You can see many of these ear trumpets now in the Beethoven Museum in Bonn, Germany, so you will be able to decide for yourself.

And last, for our coda (Italian for “tail”), there is one other handy suffix we should mention.  This one can be added to any adjective to form an absolute superlative: -issimo.

If a composition is to be performed very fast, the marking might be presto.  If extremely fast — in fact, the fastest possible tempo — is desired, then the tempo marking would be  prestissimo.  Likewise in a music score, if , for forte, is loud, then fortissimo — is extremely loud.  Sometimes even fortississimo — is called for.  Conversely, and for a reprise of our word piano, pianississimo — is extremely, extremely quiet.

And now, back to your dinner.  As a starter for your meal with pasta?

How about minestrone — in Italian, minestra means soup, so minestrone is a big soup.

Speaking of soup, if you’re not exactly sure at this point that you can endure any more of la bella lingua, this language so replete with idiosyncrasies, then we’ll just conclude with one more Italian saying:


O mangiar questa minestra o saltar questa finestra.


The English translation doesn’t quite capture the poetry of the original Italian, but we'll try anyways:  Either eat this soup or jump out this window.

Or, as we might say in English, take it or leave it.




The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

Other Threads in This Blog: