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Some adjectives seem to change meaning depending on the position (before of after the noun), e.g.

un bambino piccolo - a young child

un piccolo bambino - a small child

Other simply don't "sound good" in a given position, e.g.

un lungo treno blu - sounds good to me

un blu treno lungo - not good

Does the Italian language have any rule for adjective order?

  • 5
    Funnily (at least to me) un blu treno sounds terrible, but un verde treno sounds quite poetic! – nico Nov 13 '13 at 17:39
  • 1
    well asked; once more, I'm glad my original question about why we can say "un vestito verde" but we wouldn't say "un verde vestito" has been reintroduced. Still, I would have liked to have the opportunity of asking the question myself... And if it is just a coincidence, it is a funny one. – Paola Nov 14 '13 at 15:59
  • In English we would not say "a blue, long train". Rather, we would say "a long, blue train". This latter order of adjectives in English is same as the order of adjectives in Italian. – user4591 May 16 '18 at 3:51
26

Yes, Italian has certain rules on the adjectives order and they are quite strict, in fact. The question appears to be perfectly academic, by the way, because the full set of explanations why un blu treno lungo does not (and could not) sound good takes a doctoral thesis.

So, anybody interested in the perfect and detailed description could consult:

  • Ramaglia, Francesca (2008), La sintassi degli aggettivi e la proiezione estesa del NP (tesi di dottorato), Roma, Università degli Studi Roma Tre. (chapter 2.3)
  • Cinque, Guglielmo (2010), The Syntax of Adjectives. A comparative study, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press. (chapter 6)

The general scheme of adjectives usage looks like this (adapted from Ramaglia (2008: 131)):

  1. Functional adjectives: quality - size - time - shape - colour
  2. Noun
  3. Descriptive adjectives: colour - shape - time - size - quality

The first group of adjectives (prenominal) is connotative, implying or suggesting something in addition to the noun. The second group of adjectives (postnominal) is denotative, showing, designing, or indicating something about the noun.

Some adjectives may appear only in one position, either before or after the noun. Always after the noun appear classificatory adjectives and adjectives of provenance/nationality:

  • il comitato centrale (never: il centrale comitato)
  • un vaso cinese (never: un cinese vaso)

Always before the noun appear such adjectives as presunto, sedicente "alleged", ex "former", futuro "future, next in turn", mero "mere", and some other.

But many adjectives may appear before or after the noun with an inherent change in their meaning. The OP has given two excellent examples with the word piccolo. Such shift in the meaning is even more evident if the same adjective is used both before and after the noun, e.g.:

  • un vecchio amico vecchio
    • un vecchio amico = a friend since (some point in) the past
    • un amico vecchio = a friend, who is old
  • un povero uomo povero
    • un povero uomo = a poor (=pitiful) man
    • un uomo povero = a poor (=with no money) man
  • le numerose famiglie numerose che si erano presentate
    • numerose famiglie = numerous (=many) families
    • le famiglie numerose = the numerous (=with many members) families

For more examples of such adjectives, please refer to the above-mentioned works and to this article.

Now, coming back to the examples from the question:

  • un lungo treno blu sounds good because one assesses a type of the train and also describes its color.
  • un blu treno lungo could not sound good unless color is a function of this train.
  • un verde treno, as proposed by nico in the comments, may sound good if:
    1. it's in a poetic context (the train is green and blossoming because it's the spring/summer time);
    2. it implies that this train is young; or
    3. it implies that the train is sick.
  • Excellent answer! The URL attached to "to this article" no longer works; would you mind updating it? – blazs Jun 24 '15 at 6:00
  • Wow! Molto interessante. – mario Jan 18 '16 at 16:38
  • Grazie, @mario. – I.M. Jan 19 '16 at 9:46
  • It's funny because, my mother language is Portuguese, and it's quite "from heart" to learn "Um pobre homem/Un povero uomo" - Pitiful man, "Um homem pobre/Un uomo povero" - Poor(with no money) man. I guess the similarities comes from Portuguese being originated from Latin(and other mixes after that, of course).. – user3301 Feb 22 '17 at 12:08
  • Another common adjective which also usually comes before the noun: intero – Alan Evangelista Sep 11 at 22:02
12

This is a very interesting question. The position of the adjectives in Italian can completely change the meaning, as you pointed out.

Basically, when an adjective states an objective property of the related noun, it tends to keep its "regular" position, which is usually after the noun itself.

When there's some kind of subjective evaluation, usually the adjective is placed before the noun. (On the other hand, please keep in mind that this is not true for all the cases when the adjective preceedes the noun).

What said also explains why in your second example un lungo treno blu sounds better than un blu treno lungo.

See Sulla posizione dell'aggettivo qualificativo in italiano.

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