Using the Spanish Verb 'Llamar'

Verb Isn't Just for Referring to People's Names

Colorful telephones
Voy a llamarte por teléfono. (I'll call you by phone.). Photo by Mark Fischer; licensed via Creative Commons.

Llamar is a verb that you will use very early as you learn Spanish, because the verb is commonly used when asking someone his or her name, or when telling others your own name. However, llamar also is used in other ways and can be found in a variety of contexts, such as to refer to the making of a telephone call.

Generally, the literal translation of llamar is "to call." Thus, when you are using llamar to ask someone's name, you are literally asking what the person calls himself or herself. Knowing this will help you use the verb in other contexts. See how llamar is used in the context of specifying people's names:

  • ¿Cómo se llama? (What is your/his/her name? Literally, how do you call yourself? How does he/she call himself/herself?)
  • ¿Cómo te llamas? (What is your name? Literally, how do you call yourself?)
  • Me llamo ___. (My name is ___. Literally, I call myself ___.)

If you're a beginning Spanish student, you may not have learned yet about the use of reflexive verbs, those that use the "-self" pronouns in English. An explanation of reflexive verbs is beyond the scope of this lesson, but here it is most important to know that when you're using llamar to refer to what someone is named, you must use the reflexive pronoun (se, te or me in the sample sentences) with it.

In other contexts, llamar most often means simply "to call" as in these examples:

  • Él me llamó pero no me dijo nada. He called me, but he didn't tell me anything.
  • No voy a llamarlo. I am not going to call him.
  • Tu madre te llama. Your mother is calling you.

There is an ambiguity in the above sentences in both languages: While all these examples might be using "to call" in the sense of "to telephone" (telefonear), they aren't necessarily doing so. You can make the distinction only from the context.

Llamar also can mean "to call" in other situations as well:

  • Los ministros de finanzas quieren llamar la atención sobre la biodiversidad. The finance ministers want to call attention to biodiversity.
  • Me llamó idiota. He called me an idiot.
  • Al poco rato llamó con los nudillos a la puerta. A little bit later he knocked on the door. (Literally, a little bit later, he called with his knuckles at the door.)

As the third example above suggests, there may be times where you would translate llamar as "to knock" when the context so demands. For example, a simple sentence such as "llama María" might be translated as "that's Maria knocking" if uttered when a knock is heard at the door, or "that's Maria ringing" if uttered when the telephone rings. Or a sentence such as "están llamando" (literally, they're calling) might mean "someone is ringing the doorbell" or "someone is calling on the phone." As always in matters of translation, context is key in determining what something means.