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