The process I'm trying to describe is what someone does instinctively when they are still learning a language that has the same origin as their mother tongue, and they don't know a particular word, so they try to take the word from their mother tongue and make it sound like the language they're learning.

Of course this doesn't always work, for instance because languages often have more than one origin, and the evolution of words is not perfectly predictable. Still, I think there's an element of it that is predictable, and I'm curious if there's some formalization of this translation process, and if so, what it is called.

I've heard about transliteration and transcription, but this is not really it. If there's any light you can provide on this subject, I'd be really thankful. Thank you in advance.

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    Are you thinking about calquing? That’s usually when you have a foreign word and you make up one in your own language by directly translating the parts that make up the foreign word, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t apply equally well the other way around. Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 18:50
  • Hey @JanusBahsJacquet, you gave me an excellent lead there, it's either calquing or phono-semantic matching (as referenced in the first Wikipedia page) I was thinking about. I'll read a bit more about both later, but don't hesitate to post an answer here. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 8:58
  • For those who know about the use of machine learning to generate / translate language, it's also sometimes doing a similar thing in the first stages of learning, where it's generating words that look and sound like the target language, but aren't real words. Put another way, the process I'm trying to find the name of is about translating at the sub-word level. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 9:03

3 Answers 3


Not sure about the proper term used by linguists, but this is extremely common with native Spanish speakers learning Catalan, and it is often labelled (in Catalan) as a barbarisme. This translates to barbarism in English, and there is a Wikipedia page explaining its use in linguistics. The Wikipedia page in Catalan goes into more detail, and focuses on the relevant case of castellanismes, which are Spanish words massaged into pseudo-Catalan forms that differ from the correct Catalan word. In either case, it seems like the term barbarism is quite broad, and does not exclusively refer to the phenomenon you are highlighting.

To make this answer more interesting, let me give some examples.

  1. Cockles (a kind of shellfish): Berberechos in Spanish, Berberetxos when rendered incorrectly in Catalan as a barbarisme, but Escopinyes in proper Catalan. Note that barbarisme here is not simply a question of writing the Spanish word with Catalan orthography. The lack of accentuation on the final syllable (*berberetxós) means that the final "o" is unstressed, and hence sounds like "u/oo" in Central Catalan (as spoken in Barcelona), so it sounds like the Spanish word with Catalan stress patterns.

  2. Tiredness. Cansancio in Spanish, Cansanci when rendered incorrectly in Catalan as a barbarisme (words ending "io" in Spanish often end in "i" in Catalan). The correct Catalan word is Cansament.


It isn't clear exactly which strategy you are talking about, but the first thing that comes to mind is guessing what the target language word would be, based on conjectured historical relations between two languages. One could then guess at what a certain Norwegian word might be, based on knowledge of German or English, likewise you could try to make up an Italian word that ought to be relatable to a Spanish word which you know. This can sort of work if you have some knowledge of historical sound laws in the languages in question. I have heard this practice referred to as "the etymological method", or "etymological approach".

There is also a practice of language-stereotyping where a superficial feature of a language is converted into a substitute for actual knowledge, for example the habit of adding "-o" at the end of an English word to turn it into mock-Spanish, but linguistics doesn't have a polite term for that behavior.

  • There's also a variation of that last practice where you adapt a word from one language into the phonology of the other and use it as an ad-hoc loan. Mixing English words into Swahili in this way, for example, I believe is quite common.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 20:40
  • Jane Hill used to call that stereotyping behavior (like "Hasta la vista, Baby") Junk Spanish and wrote some very interesting papers about it.
    – jlawler
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 21:45
  • Hello, thanks for your contribution, but I was specifically interested in, if it exists, the name of this process (of translating at the sub-word level, in a way). Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 8:51

From translatology, the term konkordante Übersetzung is relevant and the German Wikipedia article contains some examples from Bible translations applying this principle. I'm also aware of Quran translations trying to use the same word stem in the target language when different Arabic words share a stem.

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