In linguistics, a calque is actually a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word translation. The term calque is borrowed from French and it derives from the verb “calquer” which means “to copy”, “to trace”. More specifically, we use the verb “to calque” when speaking about borrowing a word or phrase from another language while translating its components so as to create a new lexeme in the target language.

In English, we see many examples of common phrases that are “calques” translated from other languages. For example, “Beer Garden” is a calque of the German “Biergarten”, and “Adam’s Apple” is a calque of the French “pomme d’Adam”. In both these examples, English phrases are derived from a direct literal translation of the original.

When a translator uses a calque, he/she is creating or using a neologism in the target language by adopting the structure of the source language.

Example: The German word „handball” is translated into Spanish as “balonmano”. Or the English term “skyscraper” is “gratte-ciel” in French or “rascacielos” in Spanish.

It is difficult sometimes to prove that a particular word is a calque. This often requires a lot of documentation compared to an untranslated term because, in some cases, a similar phrase might have arisen in both languages independently. This is less likely to happen when the grammar of the proposed calque is quite different from that of the borrowing language or when the calque contains less obvious imagery.

Calques are often seen in specialized or internationalized fields such as quality assurance (“aseguramiento de calidad”, “assurance qualité”) taken from English. Some calques can become widely accepted in the target language (such as “standpoint”, “breakfast” and Spanish “peso mosca” and “Casa Blanca” from English “flyweight” and “White House”).

The meaning of other calques can be rather obscure for most people, especially when they relate to specific vocations or subjects such as science and law. An unsuccessful calque can be extremely unnatural, and can cause unwanted humour, often interpreted as indicating the lack of expertise of the translator in the target language.

Also, calque contributes to the richness of a target language by avoiding the direct use of foreign words. Calque is a construction, unlike a loan which is a phonetic and morphologic adaptation.

Considered as an import of foreign elements that turn out to be discordant in the target language, a calque can be produced at any level. There are four types of calque, which we will talk about in the future.

Types of calque:

  1. Paronymous calque or loan word: the result of an incorrect correspondence between two words that have similar forms or etymologies but that have evolved differently in their respective languages to the point that they now have different meanings.
  2. Orthographic calque: normally appears in the transliteration of the names of people, places, and ethnicities. Spelling and writing conventions of the source language that make little or no sense in the target language are copied without too much consideration. However, there still exist numerous disputed spellings in other languages. Perhaps the most visible one today is “Mohammed”, but there are issues that still arise in languages such as Russian and Farsi. Place names: a. Names that have a tradition rooted in English; b. Names with a connection in English, but that is not used anymore.
  3. Typographic calque: takes place when typographical conventions that only exist in the source language are transferred to the new language. For example, English’s employment of capital letters has started to creep into Spanish, as well as the use of italics for emphasis and certain uses of quotation marks.
  4. Syntactic or structural calque: is the product of erroneous connection between the elements of a sentence or phrase (“in order to” = “en orden a” instead of “para”; “to find guilty” = “encontrar culpable” instead of “declarar culpable”). The result is the creation of a third language, in this instance, Spanglish.



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