You are on page 1of 8

Linguistic Society of America

Definite Article + Family Name in Italian

Author(s): Robert A. Hall, Jr.
Source: Language, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1941), pp. 33-39
Published by: Linguistic Society of America
Stable URL:
Accessed: 27-02-2016 15:26 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content
in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.
For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Linguistic Society of America is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Language.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

[The Italian syntactic type il Machiavelli 'Machiavelli', with sources in Old

Italian use of the definite article with family names in the plural and with nick-
names and the like, first crystallized in the Renaissance period together with.
more frequent use of the family name as a result of humanistic influence. Use of
the family name in the singular without the definite article first became frequent
in the 19th century, with the common use of the family name as equivalent to the
given name in conversation, and for a time had stylistic value as an optional
variant; at present, use of the definite article is formal or pedantic, and will
probably disappear entirely.]
1. Most descriptive and normative Italian grammars' prescribe the use of
the definite article preceding a family name2 in the singular when used alone
(not preceded by a Christian name, honorific title, modifying adjective, or the
like). Thus il Machiavelli 'Machiavelli', il Farinelli 'Farinelli', etc., but
Niccold Machiavelli, il signor Farinelli 'Mr. Farinelli', and likewise (since
Christian, not family names are involved) Dante, Michelangelo, Napoleone
without article. However, inasmuch as this usage is at present subject to con-
siderable variation and may indeed be said to have almost vanished from con-
versational Italian, it has seemed advisable to examine the origin and history
of the construction, its present status, and its probable future.
2. THE BACKGROUND(1200-1500). In the Old Italian period, as at the
present time-from Boccaccio's characters to the villagers of Silone's Fonta-
mara-it has been the normal custom among the common folk, in speaking of
and addressing each other, to use simply the Christian name (or a nickname),
with or without messer, don, or some similar honorific title. Hence little evi-
dence can be adduced from Old Italian for the use of the family name alone,with
or without the definite article. Such cases as il Rossiglione (= Guiglielmo R.)
and il Guardastagno (= Guiglielmo G.)3 or l'Angiulieri (= Cecco A.) and il
Fortarrigo (= Cecco F.)4 are quite rare, and are doubtless used only to avoid
1 Cf. the discussions in Vockeradt, Lehrbuch der italienischen Sprache ??330, 331
(Berlin, 1878); Zambaldi, Grammatica della lingua italiana 67 (Milano, n.d.); Fornaciari,
Grammatica della lingua italiana 141 (8th ed., Firenze, 1933); Trabalza and Allodoli, La
grammatica degli italiani 89 (1st ed., Firenze, 1934); and in numerous other normative
and school grammars, a resum6 of the dicta of some of which is given by V. Cioffari, Italica
14.95 (1937).
2 It is not our
purpose to treat here of the use of the definite article with Christian
names, especially feminine (la Maria, la Giannetta; in NIt. also extended to masculine
names: il Renzo); for a discussion of this common phenomenon, which is also present in
other Romance languages, cf. Meyer-Liibke, Grammaire des langues romanes 3.?150.
Another type of construction, with the definite article prefixed to a name (given or
family), which it is not our intention to discuss here is the use of an author's name to
indicate a book written by him: vuoi prestarmi il Dante? 'do you want to lend me the copy
of Dante?'
3 Boccaccio, Decameron 4.9 (ed. A. F. Massera, Bari, 1927).
4 Decam. 9.4.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

confusion between two persons named Guiglielmo or Cecco in the same story.
The only other occurrence of this usage in the Decameron, for example, is il
Canigiano (= Pietro dello C.);5 examination of other 13th and 14th century
texts6 shows likewise a practically complete absence of use of the family name
alone in the singular.
However, during this period there were present several usages which, at a later
time, would give rise to the use of the definite article with the family name when
the latter came to be used alone. Most important of these was the habit,
peculiar to Italian, of considering the members of a given family as a collective
unity and referring to them by the name of an ancestor in the plural, with the
definite article:' i Lamberti, i Pulci, gli Uberti (examples passim in all the old
texts). An individual was referred to as So-and-so of the So-and-sos: messer
Ormanno degli Ormanni, Alepro de' Galigai, etc.; often the particle dei, degli
was omitted by ellipsis: messer Guido Galigai, m. Filippo Alberighi, and the
like." From this use of the definite article with the plural arose the parallel
use with the singular; originally, the singular form of the family name (il Gher-
ardo : i Gherardi)was used to refer to one person; later, the plural form was used
with the article in the singular (il Gherardi), thus giving rise to occasional
(usually learned) back-formations in -i on names originally ending in -o: Brunetto
Latini remade from B. Latino, Giovanni Boccacci from G. Boccaccio.
Furthermore, it was likewise customary to use the definite article with nick-
names, the other great source of family names. These were either adjectives
in quasi-substantival apposition (Ricchar lo Ghercio,9Giovanni il Rosso, l'Attic-
ciato0o),nouns (il Gonnella,11il Testa"2),or new-formations by means of suffixes
(il Mangione13)or with a bare verb-stem (il Tartaglia : tartagliare,lo Scannadio14:
scannare) or with the termination -a (il Zeppa5s). In addition to these types
of nicknames, there was also that derived from a person's (or an ancestor's) oc-
cupation (Rolandino del passeggero 'R. son of the toll-collector': Rolandino il
passeggero,16 whence il Passeggero would develop as a family name); and that
derived from a person's place of origin, either with the place-name itself (uno
maestro Jacopo da Pistoia, chiamato il Pistoia;17 . . . il Firenzuola. Questo aveva
6 Decam. 9.1.
6E.g. the Novellino; Ricordano Malispini's Storia fiorentina; Dino Compagni's Cronaca;
G. Villani's Cronaca; F. Sacchetti's Novelle; etc.
?Cf. Augusto Gaudenzi, Sulla storia del cognome a Bologna nel sec. XIII, Bollettino
dell' istituto storico italiano (henceforth abbreviated BISI) 19.1-160 (1897), for an ex-
haustive discussion of the problems connected with the history of the family name in
medieval Italy; for the use of the article, cf. especially 20, 25-9.
8 Cf. Gaudenzi, BISI 19.17, concerning this type of ellipsis. The above examples are
all taken from Malispini's Storia fiorentina (ed. Livorno, 1830).
9 Novellino ?32 (ed. E. Sicardi, Livorno, 1919).
10 Decam. 4.7.
11Sacchetti, Novelle 183-5, etc.
Sacchetti, Novelle 98, 108.
13Decam. 9.5.
14Decam. 9.1.
15Decam. 8.8.
16Gaudenzi, BISI 19.54.
17Sacchetti, Novella 278; il Pistoia passim in this novella.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

nome Giovanni, ed era da Firenzuola in Lombardia18) or with an adjective indi-

cating the place"1(un giovane, il Veneziano chiamato20).
The only types of family name which did not always take the article as a
result of conditions prevalent in the Old Italian period were those derived
from a nobleman's holdings (e.g. il Farnese as opposed to Farnese without
article,21 ii Cornaro opposed to Cornaro) and names of foreigners: (Carlo di)
Borbone,22(monsignor di) Villurois, (monsignor di) Marmagna,23etc. These
types remained unfixed in their usage throughout the following period, and were
probably a contributing factor in the later decline of the construction.
3. RISE OF THE CONSTRUCTION (1500-1800). By 1500, the use of the family
name alone in the singular was becoming more frequent in the standard language,
especially in learned works; whereas, as we have pointed out, this construction
is rare in the 13th and 14th centuries, such writers as Alessandra Macinghi negli
Strozzi24 (scripsit 1447-1470) show sporadic occurrences thereof, and others of
the second half of the 15th century (Vespasiano da Bisticci, Luigi Pulci, Lorenzo
de' Medici) show it with increasing frequency. By 1525, this construction was
in full evidence25 and quite widespread; thenceforth, it was the regular usage
for three centuries.
This rise in the frequency of use of the family name alone is doubtless-in
view of the learned character of the works in which it is first manifest, the
intellectual milieu in which it arose, the short time in which it became common,
and the absence of any phonetic or morphological reason therefor-to be con-
sidered as related to another development of exactly the same period, the so-
called 'umanesimo volgare', humanism in the vernacular.26 Humanists had
developed the habit of referring to each other and to personages of their own
time by their family names (Philelphus 'Filelfo', Valla, Sphortia 'Sforza', etc.),
in imitation of ancient usage; however, whereas ancient names have always
been treated in Italian in the same manner as Christian names (Cesare, Cicerone,
Titolivio, and the like, without article), when the use of modern family names
18 Cellini, Vita 41 (page references are to the Marinelli edition, Milano, 1931); il Firen-
zuola is referred to several times in this and the following sections.
19 Although, according to Gaudenzi, place-names originally gave rise to
family names
only through adjectives derived therefrom and used as modifiers (e.g. Giovanni Cremonese,
Pillio Medicinese; BISI 19.70), nevertheless the examples cited above and many others
point also to the entrance of place-names into the field of family names through their use
as nicknames.
20 Masuccio Salernitano, II Novellino 83 (ed. A.
Mauro, Bari, 1940); il Venezianopassim
in this novella (no. 9).
Cellini, Vita 135, 204.
Machiavelli, Lettere familiari ?225 (ed. E. Alvisi, Firenze, 1883); also Cellini, Vita 71.
Cellini, Vita 254.
24 Alessandra
Macinghi negli Strozzi: Lettere di una gentildonna fiorentina del secolo
XV ai figliuoli esuli, pubblicate da Cesare Guasti, Firenze, 1877.
E.g. in such words as Bembo's Prose della volgar lingua (written ca. 1515, published
1525), Castiglione's II Cortegiano (1524), Trissino's Epistola a Papa Clemente (1524) and
Il Castellano (1529), etc.
26 A
leading force in the development of the Italian standard language in the 16th
century; for a discussion with frequent reference to its linguistic influence, cf. Toffanin,
Il Cinquecento 84-148 (Milano, 1929).

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

was transferred from humanistic Latin into the vernacular, it found the syn-
tactic construction with the definite article already prepared for it in the Italian
treatment of collective family names and of nicknames and the like.
Another possible source for this construction is a learned imitation of the
Greek custom of placing the definite article before a personal name, e.g.
2wKpaTp-Is,which may have exerted some influence through the Hellenizing
trend initiated by Gian Giorgio Trissino. It is unlikely, however, that the
Greek custom could have had much influence in determining the Italian usage,
firstly because in Italian the article is applied only to family names, in contra-
distinction to the Greek usage, and secondly because the construction of definite
article + family name had become fairly widespread in Italy by 1525, before
the Hellenizing current had become of great importance.
To illustrate the frequency of this construction, a brief statistical study of the
16th-century prose work most representative of popular speech--Benvenuto
Cellini's Vita (1558-62)--may be of interest. Of the nineteen persons referred
to at one or more points by their family names alone, fifteen are mentioned by
the family name preceded by the definite article in a total of 83 separate refer-
ences. Opposed to these are 8 occurrences of family names alone without article,
of which two are names also used elsewhere with the article, and the other six
occurrences represent four family names, two of which are repeated twice each.
Of the six family names thus used without article, all but one (Caradosso)
represent names of possessions (Farnese, Villurois, Marmagna, Borbone) or
bishoprics (Cornaro); three of the six are foreign names. The use of Caradosso
without the article is to be ascribed simply to a slip or to analogical fluctuation.
It will be noticed that the use of the article (83 times) outnumbers its omission
(8 times) by more than ten to one, a proportion which increases even more during
the following two hundred years.
The use of the definite article came to be regarded as so typical of the family
name used alone that at times the article is found even when the Christian name
is present but follows the family name, as in occasional poetical use: il Portinar
Giovanni 'G. Portinari'.27 I have even found it used in a citation of a Hungarian
name in its original order:... del Munkdcsy Mihdly 'of M. Munkacsy' in a
recent critical work.28
Moreover, this construction came to be considered as so representative of
Italian that it was imitated in other languages, notably French, in the 17th
century, in names connected with the fields in which Italian influence was
strongest, literature and painting. In French, for example, the article was
used not only with Italian family names in a correct imitation of Italian usage:
le Boccace, l'Arioste, le Trissin, le Tasse, etc., but also incorrectly with Italian
given names: le Dante,29and was even extended to the names of French artists:
le Poussin, in imitation of Ital. il Tiziano, il Tintoretto,etc.
Lorenzo de' Medici, La Caccia col Falcone, stanza 13, in his Opere 2.24 (ed. A.
Simioni, Bari, 1913-4). At present such a construction as il Rossi Giovanniis characteristic
only of legal use; or else humorous.
28 R.
Barbiera, Immortali e Dimenticati 323 (Milano, 1901).
29 Cf. Meyer-Liibke, Grammaire des langues romanes 3 ?150; Brunot, Histoire de la

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

4. DECLINE OF THE CONSTRUCTION(1800-). As has been pointed out,

there were several gaps in the unity of this usage: the article was never uni-
versally applied to names of foreigners or of territorial holdings used as family
names; occasional analogical fluctuations would occur with Italian names; and,
as is customary in Italian, the article would frequently be omitted in lists of
names. Instructive data may be gathered from Vittorio Alfieri's Vita30 (1790-
1803), a work written just before the decline of this construction began. Alfieri
uses the article throughout in connection with Italian family names, and in one
case (... dell' Annibal Caro, 31) makes a grammatical slip and wrongly extends
its use to the full name. In two lists (111, 267) he omits the articles from series
of Italian family names; in both cases the omission was doubtless further
facilitated by the fact that the Christian name Dante heads the list. In his use
of foreign family names Alfieri hesitates, usually omitting the article but oc-
casionally using it: di Voltaire (52, 243, 246, 256) but del Voltaire (170); (di)
Rousseau (83, 115) but del Rousseau (115); etc.
The decisive influence leading to more frequent omission of the article was,
however, the change in social conditions following the Napoleonic period, as a
result of which the middle classes rose to a position of greater importance, and
persons were referred to much more frequently in middle-class speech by their
last names alone in ordinary conversation and in direct address. Consequently,
the family name being placed more nearly on a par, as it were, with the given
name in familiar speech and conversation, the article came to be more frequently
omitted through the analogy of its omission with Christian names.31
During the 19th century, the use of the article remained customary for or-
dinary, non-intimate reference by means of the family name alone; its omission
came to indicate that the person mentioned was being placed outside the normal
categories of non-intimate reference: either 'below' that level (indicating fa-
miliarity or contempt) or 'above' it (celebrity, wide-spread reputation). In
Fogazzaro's Malombra,32for instance, the names Silla (the hero) and Steinegge
(a sympathetic character) normally do not have the article prefixed, and like-
wise the name Gilardoni in conversation only in his Piccolo Mondo Antico (but
il Gilardoni in descriptive text); the name Pasotti (a character presented in a
very unfavorable light) in Piccolo Mondo Antico likewise normally takes no
article; other, emotionally neutral characters are normally referred to with the
article in descriptive text: il Vezza, lo Zerboli, etc. Names of famous men in
politics and public affairs came early to be used without the article: (Cristoforo)
Colombo,33Cavour, Garibaldi, etc., and likewise those of painters, composers,

langue frangaise 3.425. Nyrop, in his Grammaire historique de la langue frangaise, vol. 5
(Syntaxe), apparently makes no mention of this interesting minor detail.
30 Page references are to the edition of Alfieri's Vita, Giornali, Lettere by E. Teza
Firenze, 1861.
31 As pointed out by Trabalza and Allodoli, La grammatica degli italiani 89.
All references to Fogazzaro's works are to the definitive edition by P. Nardi, Milano,
1931 ff.
33 The omission before Colombois undoubtedly due to the historical prominence of
Christopher Columbus, not to any desire to avoid confusion with (il) colombo'(the) dove';

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

and men of letters: Beethoven, Haydn (foreigners), and also Verdi, Bellini,
Carducci, d'Annunzio, etc.34
Through omission of the definite article to indicate familiarity or renown,
19th-century literary Italian possessed a means of focusing attention upon cer-
tain persons under discussion as opposed to others, by omitting the article from
the names of those nearest the heart of the discussion at the moment. Like-
wise, a more intimate mood could be created,35or a character could be presented
as if seen through the eyes of another,"3by the omission of the article as if in
familiar speech.
encroachment of the familiar and 'intimate' style upon conventional speech,
the use of the family name without article has steadily grown more frequent in
the 20th century. In ordinary conversation at the present time, persons of the
younger generation rarely or never use the definite article except to give a
sarcastic or ironical tone to a reference;37 further factors in this development
may have been the laconic style of military usage and the 'telegraphic' style
somewhat favored officially in recent years. The article with the family name
is almost wholly absent from recent novels, 'intimate' biographies, and similar
material in 'familiar' style;38 even in ordinary works of literary criticism and

we have 16th-century attestations of il Colombo(referring to a certain Alessandro C.) in

Parabosco's Diporti 12 ff. (ed. G. Gigli and F. Nicolini, Bari, 1912) and elsewhere.
34 It will be seen that the names of painters and men of letters came to lose the definite
article (as a result of its omission both with names of celebrities and with those of
foreigners, under one or both of which categories such names would naturally come) at a
relatively early period; contrary, therefore, to the interpretation offered by L. Spitzer
(Italienische Umgangssprache 11-2, fn. 1) that the use of the article indicates par excel-
lence a 'knight of the spirit': 'Wenn Fogazzaro S. 32 [i.e. Malombra 39 in Nardi's edition,
1931]gefragt wird: Voi 8iete il CorradoSilla? wissen wir sofort, dass wir mit einem Ritter
des Geistes zu tun haben.' Such an interpretation of this passage from Malombra is,
furthermore, based upon a misprint: Nardi points out (page 702 of his edition) that the
original and correct reading is Voi 8iete il signor CorradoSilla? which became corrupted
in later editions. In any case, il CorradoSilla would be an exceptional case and as much
out of harmony with normal Italian usage (which would call for omission of the article
when the family name is preceded by the given name). as Alfieri's dell' Annibal Caro cited
35 Cf. the variation in usage in Borgese's critical work on d'Annunzio (Napoli, 1909),
for example: in the first two sections, of biographical and narrative nature, the definite
article is much less frequently used with d'Annunzio and other names than it is in the
third section, which is primarily critical in content.
36 An interesting example of this is in Fogazzaro's Un' idea di Ermes Torranza: the old
poet Torranza is referred to throughout as Torranza (in conversational style; he is pre-
sented from the emotional standpoint of the heroine) except in one place, where the author
speaks of him in more objective style from the point of view of a literary critic, using the
article: ... della strofa in cui il Torranzaparla a certa gentedel proprio ideale (Racconti 42).
3' Personal observation, confirmed in private conversation by Professors G. Bonfante
and R. Poggioli (to whom I am indebted for criticism and suggestions).
38In such works (chosen at random) as Matilde Serao's II paese di Cuccagna (1891),
Italo Svevo's SenilitA (1898), G. A. Borgese's Rube (1921), Ignazio Silone's Fontamara
(1933), Aldo Palazzeschi's II Palio dei Buffi (1937); the 'intimate' biography by Tom
Antongini, Vita segreta di Gabriele d'Annunzio (1938); the speeches, aimed at theatrical
effect, of certain political figures; etc.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

didactic material, the article is by no means universally used.39 The only

type of writing in which the article is always used with the family name is the
most formal and learned literary history and the like, such as the ponderous
Storia Letteraria d'Italia in thirteen tomes.40
It is not unreasonable to presume that during (say) the next fifty years, the
construction il Machiavelli will be completely replaced by the construction
Machiavelli without the article, except in the most pedantic works and in certain
relatively fixed locutions (il Petrarca, il Boccaccio). Within a hundred years,
in all probability, the use of the article will appear as obsolete and archaic as
do now OIt. conciossiacosach' 'although', eziandio 'also', and similar expressions.
31Especially in the works of such violent and emotional critics as Giovanni Papini, in
whose 24 Cervelli (1912) and Stroncature (1916), for example, the definite article is some-
times used with the family name of certain persons, but more often not.
40 Milano, 1929-35.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 27 Feb 2016 15:26:11 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions