Calques / Loan Translations

Just a quick note about the use of loan translations, a.k.a., “calques”, in Anglish. First off, though, what’s a “calque”?

A “calque” is a part-for-part literal translation from one language to another. For example, the English word “skyscraper” has been translated, bit-for-bit, into many languages. For example, Spanish rascacielos (literally ‘scrapes-skies’).

These calques can be a useful way of expanding the wordhoard of Anglish. However, there are a couple of dangers which one must bear in mind.

(1) Make sure the translation actually makes sense(!) It’s possible to come up with a literal rendering of a foreign word which really makes little to no sense. For example, if we literally translate (that is, calque) the word “complex” (adj), we end up with “withweave”. Latin ‘com-‘ means “with”, and “plex” comes from ‘plectere’, meaning “weave, braid, twine”. That doesn’t really fit the meaning of “complex”, though, does it?

(2) Make sure in translating you do not give a hint of the foreign about your new Anglish word. For instance, in English we have many wordpairs where the noun comes from Germanic roots, but the adjective comes from Latinate roots: brain-cerebral, liver-renal, body-copor(e)al, lung-polmonic/pulmonary. And so on. Let’s take the last example: pulmonic. This is literally pulmon ‘lung’ + -ic. We could therefore say “lungish”. But this still seems somewhat off. But why? “Lung” is English, “ish” is English, so why doesn’t it sit right? It doesn’t sit right because, in English in these kind of cases, we tend to use the noun adjectively (so to speak). That’s why we say “brain damage”, “kidney stones”, “lung cancer”, and not “brainish damage”, or the like.

Summing up

So what’s the point? Well, look to other languages for inspiration, yes. But don’t let yourself forget the meaning you are trying to get across. If a literal translation doesn’t work for either of the reasons above, then bin it. Get back to the drawing board and come up with another word.


Post Script / Afterwrit: Final notes of interest

*The word “iceberg” is an example of a partial calque from Dutch. Dutch ijs –> ice, berg stayed as it was in the Dutch original (berg meaning “mountain”). Ijsberg is literally “ice mountain”. We used to say “ice-hill”.

*So how might we translate “complex”, out of interest? Perhaps “many-threaded” fits quite well; incidentally, this does have some connection to the Latin original (threading, weaving, needlework).


Bryan Parry

May 2012

2 Responses to Calques / Loan Translations

  1. þ says:

    Oh I so agree with this! Words in other tongues are hints as to how a word can be done, not a shape to copy. Point 2 is something which especially angers me. It is as though folk don’t even now how to speak English in the first place. I don’t know why English does it this way, but it’s fine so long as we recognise it.

    Also, I often overset “complex” as “manifold”. The meanings roughly overlap, and it has the advantage of being an existing word. In the same way, “simple” can be overset as “onefold”, although that word is seldom. However, it bothers me to see folk overset “simple” as “onefold” when they really mean “straightforward”. Of course, these words themselves may well have started out as calques…

    • bryanajparry says:

      Yes, hints, that’s it. Recently I’ve been going through Swedish, calqueing words directly, and I’ve found that half the time it’s more that Swedish offers great inspiration, and not the actual form. A slightly obscure example of what I mean. Swedish “porcupine” is “piggsvin”. This is literally brisk (“pigg”) + pig/swine (“svin”): briskswine. But perhaps “pricklypig” or “thornypig” pig are more English-y than “briskswine” and fit better; but Swedish “piggsvin” provided the initial inspiration, which is my point. [[Why not even “pricklyrat”, seeing as they are rodents.(Incidentally, I have found out that a North American word for this animal is “quill pig”).]]

      What you’re saying about people not even knowing how to speak English, or else misusing words, I think has to do with (oftentimes) people simply being so enthused, and yet so callow, that they leap headlong into Anglish in a fit of exuberance. They wind up thrashing around in a puddle of words and making a right mess of all and sundry. Irksome, yes, and one of the drawbacks of the Moot, to my mind.

      Incidentally, there’s a few cases where people NOT calqueing winds me right up. Prominently: “wunderkind”. The form and meaning so closely match “wonderchild/kid” that I don’t know why some people insist on using the German “wunderkind”.

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