This is an impersonal sentence, or, sentence without a subject. There is no yo, tú, él, ella, usted, nosotros, vosotros or ellos implied. The equivalent in English would be something like: how does one say ... in Spanish?
- ¿Cómo se dice sentence en español?
- Oración o frase.
In English, because the pronounciation and the writing very usually differ, sometimes you need to spell out the words. In Spanish, we don't spell. Spelling was imported from the English language, but we Spanish speakers don't spell out words. The sound and the writing are closer.
Maybe you've heard or studied in the class:
- Calle Ballaleros, número 8.
- Perdone, ¿cómo se deletrea?
A question like this would be unlikely between two Spanish speakers. Because at least, 7 out of the 10 letters (on the street name) are more than clear. Those sounds are clear. The mistake can come with
1. The LL. (We have the same sound for LL and Y).
2. The B (because we also have V and souns the same).
So, a Spanish speaker wouldn't ask you to spell out a word, but the possible confusions with those other letters:
- ¿Cómo se escribe Ballaleros? ¿con B o con V?
- Con B y con doble L.
There's only a few sounds a Spanish speaker can get confused with, like G and J, B and V, LL and Y, to write H or no H or with accent or no accent. The other sounds are easily represented, so we don't need to spell the way Americans or English people do.
Are there no exceptions?
Well, that's among Spanish speakers. But what about a foreigner and a Spanish? In this case, if the foreigner at a hotel says:
- ¿Su nombre?
- Peter Baugfeenschaussenshtaff.
- ¿¿Cómo?? Perdone, ¿cómo se escribe?
Even in this case, I doubt a Spanish speaker asked you the spelling (but it can happen, sure). He would rather use the ¿cómo se escribe? meaning how do you spell it?
You usually ask this when you see a word you don't understand and you can't figure it out from the context. For example, you read:
- La Segunda Guerra Mundial fue la guerra de las guerras. Murieron unas 40 millones de personas y no se puede decir que los aliados ganaron, ya que las pérdidas fueron enormes. Fue, en todo caso, una victoria pírrica.
Maybe other words too, but this one specifically could be the most difficult to figure out. What would you ask in your language? I think most people would ask (in their own language): what does pírrica mean? If you don't think so, no problem. What other question would you ask? How do you say pírrica in ...? Here, what you need to know affects the understanding of the meaning of the sentence, so you ask the meaning.
¿Cómo se dice ... en español?
However, if you're speaking Spanish and you need a word translated from your own language, you have a gap in your speech. That gap is filled by asking the translation. After that, if the meaning is not known to the listener, the meaning will be needed too.
- Ayer quería comprarme un libro que ví en una libreria, pero no tenía dinero y fui al ... , cómo se dice, este lugar en el banco para sacar dinero con la tarjeta...
- ¿Al cajero?
- Eso. Pues fui al cajero y...
Let's finish with some jokes based on the Spanish language (maybe for most advanced students since they contain plays on words):
- ¿Cómo se dice camarero en élfico?
- Éldelbar. (the guy at the bar)
- ¿Cómo se dice dentista en japonés?
- Tecuro Tuhocico. (I fix your snout)
- ¿Cómo se dice soldados en holandés?
- Van de Verde (They dress green)