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Why does "¿Cómo te llamas?" mean "¿Cuál es tu nombre?". After all, it literally means "How do you call yourself?". Yet, most of the time, you don't call yourself anything; rather, other people call you, usually, by your name.

So, then, why is "¿Cómo te llamas?" more commonly used than "¿Cuál es tu nombre?"?

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Besides all the answers directly addressing the question, I'm not sure that "What's your name?" is used much in English except in the context of bureaucracy. It sounds rather rude to me. I think I more often hear something along the lines of, "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?" (not grammatically a question, but with rising tone at the end as though it were), which has the same pragmatic effect but avoids sounding rude. – Peter Taylor Jan 18 '12 at 12:39
up vote 4 down vote accepted

¿Cómo te llamas? translates more literally to How are you called (in general, maybe by others)? than to How do you call yourself?, since it's a reference to a pronominal verb (a verb that needs to be conjugated with a pronoun, and in this specific case it was formerly called pseudo-reflexive), contrary to the call in your example, which is simply transitive. But in practice it just means What's your name?.


llamarse reflexive verb :
to be called, to be named
<¿cómo te llamas? : what's your name?>

You have a very similar verb, apellidarse, which has the same construction:


apellidarse reflexive verb :
to have for a last name
<¿cómo se apellida? : what is your last name?>

This case is more obvious, since there is no confusion between the two different flavors (transitive and pseudo-reflexive/pronominal) of the same verb. Despite the existence of the transitive version of apellidar, it's not as common as the transitive version of llamar.

llamar (a alguien, transitive) vs llamarse (preudo-reflexive/pronominal).
apellidar (a alguien, transitive) vs apellidarse (pseudo-reflexive/pronominal).

Now, regarding the last part of your question Cómo te llamas is more likely to be used in everyday speech and Cuál es tu nombre, since it's a little bit more formal, maybe also a little bit less used.

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Different languages, like different peoples, have different customs. You cannot expect to use literal translations to get the correct phrases/meanings -- it is something you have to learn.

(After all, if it was as easy as literal translations computers could do it for us with no problem; try running a phrase or two through some of the free translation services to see that it is not, in fact, an easy thing to do.)

So the reason is: Because it does. ;)

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This is because the verb llamar is a pronominal verb when it has the meaning of "having a name or a last name"; here's the relevant part of the definition according to RAE:


(Del lat. clamāre).

  1. prnl. Tener tal o cual nombre o apellido.

In fact, llamar (when used with the above meaning) is an example of a strictly pronominal verb always requiring the non-tonic pronoun.

Just to clarify: In the expression ¿Cómo te llamas? the term te must not be taken as a reflexive pronoun at all (it is, in fact, a morphem), so it is not true that ¿Cómo te llamas? would be translated as How do you call yourself?

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Apparently llamar is not the best example of a strictly pronominal verb because it can be conjugated without the pronoun (with a different meaning, I agree, but still). Examples of strictly pronominal verbs would be arrepentirse, quejarse, jactarse and dignarse, because none of them can actually be used without the pronoun. – Eduardo Jan 16 '12 at 20:08
@Eduardo: I know and that's why I included "(when used with the above meaning)". – Gonzalo Medina Jan 16 '12 at 20:11
I know you made a note on that, but what I'm trying to say is that despite the note, the statement is still false. – Eduardo Jan 16 '12 at 20:24
@Eduardo: I don't see why (taking my note into account)... but, of course, feel free to make any edits to improve the quality of my answer. – Gonzalo Medina Jan 16 '12 at 20:28

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