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Is it really wrong to say "How do we call something in English?" instead of "What do we call something in English?"? The former's not unusual in Philippine English at all (probably it's because of the influence of Spanish, which was the national language for almost 400 years). Indeed, it's quite interesting that in many European languages, they tend to say "how". Anyone who can explain this? Thanks a lot.

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Italians often make this mistake themselves from the fixed expression: "come si dice?" = How (do) you say? The simplest request for an English word I find is the following: What's gatto in English? (cat). –  Mari-Lou A Feb 6 at 21:45
    
French is similar: "Comment dit-on...?" Literally, "How does one say...?". –  Michael Roy Feb 6 at 23:21
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What is this animal called in English? A dog. How is this animal called in English? Come here, dog. –  MετάEd Feb 7 at 0:32
    
the Russians tend to say how because it's a word-for-word translation from Russian then. I can see why others make the same mistake. –  Yukatan Feb 9 at 16:24
    
Spanish as well: ¿Cómo se dice...? –  qbantek Apr 2 at 12:51
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4 Answers

This question on Pearson's English Language Teaching site pretty much answers your question.

To summarize:

In the sentence "What is this called in English?" the speaker is looking for the name of something to be substituted for the pronoun what. The speaker needs a noun or noun construction to identify the thing that the word what refers to.

In contrast, "How is it called in English?" does not make sense. How asks for information about the manner of doing something, or the degree or quantity of something.

The article goes on to conclude:

  • "How do you say that?" asks for a word, a phrase, a sentence or a paraphrase. It is quite comprehensive.
  • "What do you call that?" asks for a noun or noun construction. It's very specific.
  • "How do you call that?" is incorrect.
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You would have to call the help center to issue your complaint. - How do you call that? - by phone, of course. –  Theraot Feb 7 at 3:30
    
@Theraot Read the link; you'll see that form addressed. (It's not that long an article, honest.) –  Gnawme Feb 7 at 5:47
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Kind of, yet saying that it "is incorrect" is - let's say - hard to swallow. What the article says is that the word "how" asks for the manner of doing something and that's not the intention people have when they ask "How is this called in English?". So asking that in particular doesn't make sense. Still in general the combination of "how" and "call" is not incorrect, it just means something else, so it is a matter of finding the right context to show that "How do you call that" is not incorrect - it asks for instructions, mediums or means to call that. –  Theraot Feb 7 at 6:30
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"How do we call sth?" has a different meaning. The word "call" here means "to bring sth" or "to make sth or sb aware". Like for example "how do I call the elevator?"; here you're asking about how to make the elevator come to your floor so that you can use it and the answer would be for example "You just press the button to the right."

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I don't think that's what "call" means here. I think a more formal way of phrasing the OP's phrase would be "How do we refer to {something} in English?" I think the OP is using "call" to mean "refer to", as in "That animal over there is called a 'goat'". –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Feb 6 at 21:36
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I think Mina Michael's point is that “how do you call” has a different meaning to most native speakers, which is why it sounds strange to use it to mean “refer to.” –  Bradd Szonye Feb 6 at 22:47
    
Agreed. That's not what "call" is intended to mean, but that's probably the only way the sentence can be interpreted literally. –  Kyle Strand Feb 7 at 0:29
    
@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner True. I think we mean "refer to" when we use "call" this way. :-) –  Louel Feb 7 at 5:21
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It is perfectly alright for, let's say, a French person to say 'How do you say 'diarrhéa' in English?' You can also ask 'How do they spell diarrhoea in America?' (Answer: 'They don't know how to'.)

What we can't say, but you apparently can, is 'How do you call the condition where you are constantly running to the loo'. As you point out we say 'What do you call ...?'

So this is all to do with the verb 'to call', which takes a number of interrogative pronouns including 'what' and 'how', but they each imply something different. 'What do you call your son?' will attract an answer of Charles Anthony, or something. However 'How do you call your son' is likely to attract an answer of something like 'I open the window and yell "Charlie"'.

So you can see that 'How do you call a thing with four wheels and an engine', doesn't really make sense. It is to do with the fact that 'call' is used in different senses. Although I am sure you find a way round this in the Philippines.

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I think it has something to do with the fact that we mean "refer to" when we use "call" this way. –  Louel Feb 7 at 5:25
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The short answer is yes. The longer answer is very complicated but boils down (as far as I understand it) to the grouping of those languages. English is Germanic. The languages you refer to are romance languages, and thus evolved differently.

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I'm not sure that Germanic vs Romance explains the difference here. For example, modern German and English have diverged when it comes to naming things. Contrast English “it's called X” with German “es heisst X.” Thus while this may be a language family difference, I don't think it's sufficient to handwave it without further explanation. –  Bradd Szonye Feb 6 at 22:52
    
@BraddSzonye Was ist das?! –  Elliott Frisch Feb 6 at 22:55
    
My German is very rusty, but when asking somebody's name, don't you idiomatically say “Wie heissen Sie?” (“How are you named?”) –  Bradd Szonye Feb 6 at 22:56
    
@BraddSzonye My German is also very rusty, but when asking "what something is (called)" English is Germanic. But then I took Spanish and the zapato was on the other pie. –  Elliott Frisch Feb 6 at 23:00
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German also has the constructions "Wie nennt man ..." and "Wie sagt man ...". I think the root of the problem in English is that "call" carries the meanings of both of the German verbs "nennen" and "rufen". –  Andreas Blass Feb 7 at 2:18
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