Using the Spanish Verb ‘Llamar’

Verb isn’t just for use with names

Colorful telephones
Voy a llamarte por teléfono. (I'll call you by phone.).

Mark Fischer / 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.

Using Llamar With Names

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 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 ___.)
  • La empresa se llama Recursos Humanos. (The business is named Recursos Humanos.)

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 are using the reflexive form of the verb, llamarse, and you must use the reflexive pronoun (se, te or me in the sample sentences) with it.

Using Llamar for Calling

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.

Using Llamar Figuratively

In some contexts, llamar can be used as meaning "call" in a broad or figurative sense, giving it the meaning of "to be appealing" or something similar. Like "call," it can be used to indicate that something is drawing someone to it.

  • La tecnología nueva llama la atención de cientos de millones de personas. (The new technology is drawing the attention of hundreds of millions of people.)
  • La música rock no me llama. (Rock music doesn't appeal to me.)
  • A mi personalmente los videojuegos no me llaman, pero reconozco la importancia que están teniendo hoy día. (I personally don't care for videogames, but I recognize the importance they are having these days.)

Words Related to Llamar

Among the words related to llamar are:

  • Llamada often refers to a telephone call, although it can refer to various kinds of signals or gestures used to call attention. La llamada era del presidente. (The call was from the president.) Some speakers also use llamado this way.
  • As a noun, llamado can refer to a spiritual calling: Pedro recibió un llamado al ministerio. (Pedro received a call to the ministry.)
  • A doorbell, door buzzer, or doorknocker is often called a llamador. The word can also be used for a visitor, i.e., someone who comes calling.
  • A call for action can be called a llamamiento. La Marcha por la Paz ha querido hacer este año un llamamiento para cuidar el planeta. (The March for Peace has wanted to make this year a call for care of the planet.)
  • Something that calls attention to itself can be considered llamativo as explained in this lesson on translation.

Surprisingly, llama as a noun isn't related to llamar. In fact, there are two unrelated nouns of the form llama:

  • The name of the South American pack animal known as a llama comes from the Quechua language.
  • Llama can also refer to a flame, and, like the English word, it is related to the Latin flamma. Spanish also uses the word flama.

Key Takeaways

  • Llamar has a general meaning very similar to that of "to call" and thus can usually be used to translate the English verb.
  • The reflexive form, llamarse, is very commonly used in giving the name of someone or something.