How To Use The Italian Prefix -s For Inversion Or Negation

I recently discussed the meanings of some common Italian prefixes, but I intentionally left out perhaps the most common of them all. (And that was promptly pointed out in a comment!) Rest assured, I did that intentionally, because I felt it was important enough to have its own post.

Its just a consonant!

One of the most widely used of all Italian prefixes is nothing more than the letter s-. Perhaps this isn't so strange to me after all that I've learned from Russian prefixes, but I can still recognize that it's an unusual feature in a Latin language. I can also recognize that it's incredibly handy!

Taking an s- onto the front of a word usually has an inverse, negative, or pejorative effect. That is, it may have an effect of applying an opposite meaning, or it may have the effect of applying a sense of negativity or undesirability.

For instance, fatto mean "made" (such as a bed), and adding the s- gives us sfatto, meaning "un-made". This is an example of inversion, or negation.

However, as an example of negativity or undesirability, consider proposito, meaning "intention". Adding the s- to the beginning gives us sproposito, which is a "blunder."

Not agglutinative

We can't just go tacking s- onto the front of any old word and expecting it to make sense, the way one could in a Slavic language (or Esperanto), but understanding the way prefixes work is still a vital part of building that web of knowledge that creates many little "crutches" to prop up the things we know.

So while you can't always add an s- to the front of a word (or remove it from one) to get an opposite, we can still use our knowledge of its meaning, in conjunction with our knowledge of word roots, to remember meanings of words we learn, or to figure out meanings of new words.

sproloquio - rambling speech

: s- negative, or undesirable

_pro-_ going forward  

_loquo -_ Latin root relating to speech

sgarbato - rude

: s- negative, inverse

_garbato -_ courteous

sforzare - to strain

: s- negative, undesirable

_forza -_ force

spremiaglio - garlic press (garlic squeezer)

: s- negative, undesirable

_premere_ - to press  

_aglio_ - garlic

sbottare - to burst (out)

: s- negative, undesirable

_botta_ - a strike or blow

slegarsi - to untie oneself

: s- negation, opposite

_legare_ - to tie  

_-si_ - reflexive ending

Sbarro! - We're open!

: s- - negation, opposite

_barrare_ - to block

This one little letter is in my opinion one of the most interesting features of the Italian language. It makes expanding vocabulary easier, and adds a certain character and charm that none of the other Latin languages have.

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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    it’s not actually "an unusual feature in a [Romance] language" as you say. In Portuguese you would have for example "propósito" and "despropósito", which bear the same meanings as in Italian in this case. the des- prefix is also used in Spanish, and I assume other Romance languages might have it as well (it even made it to English, as de- or dis-, e.g. deactivate, disintegrate). I would say that s- is merely a contraction of the Latin dis- prefix, and therefore much easier to relate to, especially given the English examples.

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