If my “calque”ulations are correct…


Calques are ever-present in all languages, but a lot of people may be unaware that they exist, or how they came to be.  A calque is a literal word-for-word translation of a word or phrase from one language to another, rather than a translation of meaning.

There are four types of calques:

  • the semantic calque, where additional meanings of the source word are transferred to the word with the same primary meaning in the target language;
  • the phraseological calque, where idiomatic phrases are translated word-for-word;
  • the syntactic calque, where a syntactic function or construction in the source language is imitated in the target language;
  • the loan-translation, where a word is translated morpheme-by-morpheme into another language;
  • the morphological calque, where the inflection of a word is transferred.

Semantic Calques would be where a word or phrase that has more than one meaning in the primary language adopts the alternate meaning in another language, like star in English means both the astronomic body, but also someone famous.  Because of its popularity, the word for star in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Polish, Finnish, and Vietnamese now also mean someone famous, rather than using the English word.

Phraseological Calques is where one directly translates a phrase in a primary language into the secondary one, like the English “Five-year plan” now exists as plan cinquinnel in French.

Syntactic Claques exist as essentially forms of mistranslation in largely bilingual areas.  For example, in Spanish courts, “to find guilty” would be translated as “to declare guilty”, yet because of English influence, many now say “to find guilty” (encontrar culpable).

Loan Translation Calques are when the terms are translated, similarly to phraseological, like the English “Adam’s Apple” was taken from the French pomme d’Adam.

Finally, Morphological Calques are those that borrow the structure from a different language that is not necessarily the norm in the target language.  So, if one were to say, “We’re going to the store, are you coming with?” One could argue that the “us” is understood, and this is just slang, but in German, kommen Sit mit? is the proper structure, and it has been borrowed in its original syntax.

If you have ever had a song in your head, we call that having an earworm.  This comes from the German for literally “ear worm” (but all one word in German “Ohrwurm”, which actually translates to English as “earwig”, but we kept the literal translation to mean the song stuck in one’s head, and did not translate it to earwig.

English is not just the borrower, but also becomes the lender in many cases, especially in the realm of Information Technology.  Because many computer technology terms are relatively new, numerous languages have turned to calques for their own lexicons.  In French, a “hard drive” is a disc dur, and “mouse” is souris.

I hope you enjoyed a learning a little about how we lend and borrow words; until next time.


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