Cultural evolution represents a pervasive element in modern societies, along with language, which is a reflection thereof, for it actually points to the changes occurring within such communities. Every modern society undergoes change from a social, demographic and ethnic viewpoint and must respond to increasing globalization, immigration and all sorts of influences. Under these conditions, undesirable and unpleasant effects are produced, one of which is what is widely known as “calque”. This article explains and emphasizes this particular aspect of language change, by looking into the case of linguistic calque.

Non-native speakers of a language writing documents or texts in that language often come across difficulties in terms of vocabulary, grammar or style that seem to make their writings hard to grasp. As a result, the texts themselves look unprofessional and lose credibility. Now, most of us would say that more often than not, if not always, errors are the result of a lack of knowledge of the target language. However, it is just as accurate to say that this linguistic phenomenon also exists in the case of native speakers of a language, because of the changes (mainly words or phrases loaned or borrowed from another language by literal translation) that their first language undergoes throughout their lives.

The term calque itself was borrowed from the field of graphic arts, where it meant ‘copying a sketch or a drawing’, by means of a special kind of paper, called tracing paper. Perhaps the most well-known examples are at the level of vocabulary, where usually the structure of words is transferred first, rather than the meaning. Thus, the Romanian verb întrevedea (‘glimpse’) is made up of între-+vedea (‘between’+’see’), but it actually comes from French entrevoir. Following the same pattern, the German word Übermensch (coined by Friedrich Nietzsche) resulted in various languages as: supraom (Romanian), surhomme (French), superuomo (Italian), superman (English), sverhcelovek (Russian) and so on and so forth, all of which led to a form of calque dubbed quite justly “international”1.

Although the most numerous examples illustrating this phenomenon are found in vocabulary items, in order to build the wider picture of the linguistic calque, one must also consider cases where foreign grammatical processes or constructions are under the spotlight, in that they make up both morphological and syntactic calques. For instance, the Romanian verb a teme (‘fear) is used as a reflexive verb under the influence of the Slavic bojati se. To this, one might add the fact that the Latin verb timere was used both transitively and intransitively. Because of the influence of French on the Romanian language, the selfsame verb occurred on its transitive use, like its French counterpart craindre, which is normally followed by direct objects. Hence, the unfortunate Romanian translation tem pericolul/atacul etc. of the French craindre le danger/attaque (instead of m? tem de pericol/atac).

Yet perhaps these are some of the rarest and most difficult to spot calques for the average speaker of a language like Romanian. There are also instances where literal translation of a phrase takes place, at the level of the entire phrase or only at the level of one of the elements forming it. Thus, the French faire antichambre (‘wait a long time before entering’) occurs in Romanian as a face anticamer? – apart from the calque of the entire phrase, we also witness a lexical type of calque – notice the internal structure of antichambre – anticamer? which is now part of standard Romanian and which might also account for (since we are talking professionalism) the errors speakers sometimes make, hesitating between anticamer? and antecamer?, not knowing whether to choose the first or the second form, seeing as Romanian has both types of prefixes, anti- and ante-.

And because French has really served us well in this respect, it deserves yet another mention in terms of the effects of linguistic calque on the Romanian language: it was French which influenced the use in Romanian of gerunds used as adjectives or nouns: crescând  crescând? (from croissant  croissante, in English growing), suferind – suferind? (from souffrant – souffrante, in English suffering), dormind – dormind? (from dormant – dormante, in English sleeping) and so on. Nowadays, we all use the plural noun suferinzii without being aware of its evolution and we instinctively interpret it, just like we do with other words we have rarely or never heard before. Who would have thought calques might help turn Scrabble into a challenging and fun game?

From French into English
Pomme d’Adam Adam’s apple
Sourd-muet Deaf-mute
Vers libre Free verse
Marché aux puces Flea market
Nouvelle Vague New Wave
L’esprit de l’escalier Staircase wit
Cela va sans dire That goes without saying
Point de vue Point of view
From German into English
Antikörper Antibody
Vorwort Foreword
Heimweh Homesickness
Lehnwort Loanword
Machtpolitik Power politics
Standpunkt Standpoint
Unterschwellig Subliminal
Weltanschauung Worldview
From Latin into English
Locus comm?nis Commonplace
Advoc?tus diabol? Devil’s advocate
D?ns sapientiae Wisdom tooth
Via lactea Milky Way
In nuce In a nutshell
From Spanish into English
Sangre azul Blue-blood
El momento de la verdad[1] Moment of truth

A different approach to this linguistic issue considers the deceiving nature of calques, because they resemble the words from which they are derived, so speakers may be tempted to try and translate other words as well, although they are wrong to do so. Examples of this abound on the Internet. Some of them are quite humorous, such as carte mère in French, which stands for the word-for-word translation of motherboard in English. J.R.R. Tolkien dubbed Bilbo Baggins’s residence “Bag End”, which was translated from the French cul-de-sac. These examples fall into the category of pseudocalques. For instance, in American English, the word “latte”, from Italian, is not used on its Italian reading: milk; instead, it refers to ‘espresso with frothy steamed milk’.

Another example is the word golf in Italian, which, according to Italians, is a borrowed English word having the exact same meaning. Except this is another instance of pseudocalque, for in English the word golf does not mean ‘long-sleeved sweater’ – like in Italian – in English it only serves to designate the sport. It is possible that the pseudocalque comes from the English phrase golf jacket. If we remove the word jacket, however, the phrase no longer means the same in English, but it does preserve its meaning in Italian, much like the account for latte above.

The above-mentioned examples all help us understand words in foreign languages, when we travel abroad or move to a different country. In the absence of basic awareness of it, language will hinder rather than help speakers. Knowing the regular patterns of the use of a particular word or getting accustomed to detecting such patterns can help one avoid situations where limited French or Romanian skills have you fumble in your pockets for a dictionary.



  1. Hristea, T. (1975). Calcul interna?ional.

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