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date: 13 November 2018

Abstract 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.

Abstract words such as Fr. attention, It. diligenza, Sp. riqueza, Pt. cozedura, Ro. bunătate, belong to the word class nouns. They do not possess materiality and therefore lack sensory perceivability. Within the spectrum of nouns, abstracts are located on the opposite side of appellatives (e.g., Fr. chien, It. albero, Sp. casa); between them, there are collective nouns (e.g., Fr. montagne, It. fogliame, Sp. manada) and mass nouns (e.g., Fr. eau, It. cotone, Sp. leche). Abstract nouns are in part noncount and not able to be pluralized.

In terms of meaning, there is typically a threefold division in groups: (1) action/result nouns (e.g., Fr. lavage, traduction; It. caccia, giuramento; Sp. mordedura, cosecha; Pt. escolha, armação; Ro. arat, stricăciune); (2) status nouns (e.g., Fr. episcopat, It. cuginanza, Sp. almirantazgo, Pt. servidão, Ro. preoţie); and (3) quality nouns (e.g., Fr. dignité, It. cortezza, Sp. modestia, Pt. agrura, Ro. dulceaţă). However, these groups are not clearly delimitable. Action nouns generally tend to become concrete nouns due to metonymic change in meaning. This can be effected through the resultative meaning in fact since the Latin era: calceamentum “making of shoes” is derived from the verb calceare “to make shoes,” which then assumed the collective meaning “footwear,” which is the “result of the making.” Correspondingly, there are numerous examples for collectives and concretes in Romance languages following the morphological pattern of abstracts, for example, Fr. couture “seam,” venaison “venison,” It. ossatura “bone frame,” ornamento “decoration,” Sp. pescado “fi,” verdura “vegetable,” Pt. vestimenta “clothing,” moldura “frame,” Ro. osăminte “bones,” încinsătură “belt.”

From a purely morphological standpoint, a classification of abstracts according to derivation basis appears suitable: (1) (primary) denominal abstracts (e.g., Fr. duché, It. linguaggio, Sp. añada, Pt. compadrio, Ro. pitărie); (2) (primary) deadjectival a. (e.g., Fr. folie, It. bellezza, Sp. cortesía, Pt. baixeza, Ro. greutate); and (3) (primary) deverbal a. (e.g., Fr. mouvement, It. uscita, Sp. nacencia, Pt. perdição, Ro. arătură). Beyond that, there are abstracts that are not derived within the Romance languages, for example, Fr. paix, It. gioia, Sp. edad, Pt. morte, Ro. somn (cf. lat. pax, gaudium, aetas, which are derivatives within Latin). Still other abstracts arise from conversion, in which a change in a word class occurs without the addition of affixes: Fr. le loisir, le froid; It. il bene, il bello; Sp. el parecer, lo dulce. Especially converted adjectives are mainly occasional formations that have not been lexicalized. In Romanian, the long form of the infinitive always has the function of a verbal abstract, for example, cântare “singing” vs. a cânta “to sing.” Other examples for lexicalized conversions arise by means of ellipsis: lat. hibernum (tempus) → Fr. hiver, It. inverno, Sp. invierno, Pt. inverno, Ro. iarnă. The suffixless postverbal formation is of high significance in Romance languages, such as Fr. regret “regret” (← regretter), It. governo “government” (← governare), Sp. cambio “change” (← cambiar), Pt. perda “loss” (← perder), Ro. plac “pleasure” (← plăcea). Other abstract forming processes such as reduplication (Fr. cache cache “hide-and-seek,” It. fuggi fuggi “escape”) or conversion of finite verb forms (Fr. doit “amount”) may be labeled marginal.

In light of this, the question of how far the formation of abstracts in Romance languages then follows Latin patterns (derivation with suffixes) or whether new processes emerge is of particular interest. In addition, the individual Romance languages display different preferences in choosing abstract forming morphological processes. To begin with, we find a larger number of abstract forming suffixes preserving their function in Romance languages, such as -ia (abundantia, sententia), -ía (astrología), -ura (scriptura), -ĭtia (pigritia), -mentum (ornamentum), -io (oratio). In addition, there is a group of Latin suffixes that have assumed the abstract forming function only in Romance. Among these are, for example, -aticu (Fr. péage, Sp. hallazgo), -aceu (Sp. cuchillazo), -aria (Sp. borrachera, It. vecchiaia), -oriu (Sd. albeskidordzu “daybreak”). Abstract forming suffixes of non-Latin origin are very rare, such as Germanic -eins (Old Fr. guerpine, plevine; Fr. haine). Suffixless processes of abstract formation are coming to full fruition only in Romance: The conversion of participles (Fr. vue, offerte; It. dormita, colorito; Sp. llegada, afeitado; Pt. chamada; sentido; Ro. făcut, mulţumită) is of special importance. The conversion of infinitives to nouns with abstract meaning is least common in Modern French (e.g., plaisir, devoir) and most widely spread in Romanian (iertare, stricare, etc., cf. above). Postverbal formation (Fr. amende, It. carica, Sp. Muestra, etc., cf. above), in contrast, is known to have a broad pan-Romance geographic spread. These innovative processes, too, can be traced back to the late Latin era. One problem lies in assigning grammatical gender in cases of suffixless formations: Nominalized participles and postverbal formations can be masculine or feminine while nominalized infinitives are mostly masculine; in Romanian, however, they are feminine.

Finally, the formation of abstracts as it is used in scientific and technical language follows the Neo-Latin and Greek word formation patterns (Fr. arthrite, tuberculose, athéisme; It. artrite, tubercolosi, ateismo; Sp. artritis, tuberculosis, ateísmo; Pt. artrite, tuberculose, ateísmo; Ro. artrită, tuberculoză, ateism) and therefore often only displays limited variation in the individual languages.