Thursday, January 25, 2018

Republic: The State of and for All

If we understand democracy, as defined by Aristotle, as the direct government of the people, then, indeed, the United States is a republic and not a democracy. Of course, no one with a basic knowledge of words and political science would say that America is or should be a democracy in that sense of the word. Democracy is essentially understood as the system where the government derives its power from the people, which freely elect its representatives, and that system constitutes a republic. Therefore, the United States is a democratic republic, unlike other republics, where the government may have originally derived its power from the people, but the latter no longer elects its representatives in a free way.

The word “republic” comes, indeed, from the French république, which derived from Latin respublica. This is a compound word, where res means “entity” and publica, “belonging to the people.” However, the Armenian word for “republic,” հանրապետութիւն (hanrabedootioon ), is not a literal translation, since it has a different meaning in its two components. The first word, hanr, is a contraction of հանուր (hanoor), which means “all” and has generated words like հանրութիւն (hanrootioon) “public” (noun) and հանրային (hanrayin) “public” (adjective). The second word is պետութիւն (bedootioon ), which literally means “chiefdom” (պետ /bed “chief” + the suffix ութիւն /ootioon), and has come to mean “state” (in the sense of nation in one territory) in modern use. Thus, the word hanrabedootioon means “the state of/for all.”

The use of hanrabedootioon was consecrated in the Armenian language after the birth of the Republic of Armenia in 1918. It is interesting, however, that its use in Armenia had a hiatus during Soviet times. As part of the process of Russification of the language that was pursued under Stalin, a decree of 1940 imposed the use of ռեսպուբլիկա (respublica, a direct loan from Russian) instead of hanrabedootioon, together with other foreign words. Therefore, Soviet Armenia was called Հայկական Ռեսպուբլիկա (Haygagan Respublica) until 1966, when another decree restored most of the words that had been legally eliminated in 1940 and Soviet Armenia became again Հայկական Հանրապետութիւն (Haygagan Hanrabedootioon). After the declaration of independence released in August 1990, the name Հայաստանի Հանրապետութիւն (Hayastani Hanrabedootioon ) was officially restored.

The use and misuse of words indicate the difference that may exist between an actual democracy (where people supply the power of the government) and a democracy in name only, where words do not matter and anyone who does not toe the line of the government may be declared—as the experience of the Soviet Union in the 1930s showed—an “enemy of the people” and claimed to deserve punishment or death on behalf of that same people.  

Thursday, January 11, 2018

In the Beginning, the Ass Was a Horse

Asses have had bad publicity since ancient Greek times, and anyone with some exposure to English colloquial language may hear one of many combinations of the word “ass” (or the word itself) on a daily basis to typify clumsiness and stupidity. The same happens with Armenian speakers, even though there are not that many combinations of the word էշ ( esh). However, you may find a wide (someone would also say fine) collection of phrases including esh in Armenian. One should add that asses were highly esteemed in ancient Armenia for their usefulness.

Intriguingly, “ass” and esh do not sound that far from each other. The English word is cognate with a series of Germanic and Slavic languages, and it is likely that all of them ultimately derive from Latin asinus (e.g. Spanish asno, Old French asne ). Apparently, the form of the Latin word indicates that the ultimate source was a language of Asia Minor. On the other hand, the Sumerian language (a non-Indo-European, non-Semitic language spoken in southern Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C.) had the word anshe (“ass”).

The Armenian word esh is native Indo-European. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European word ek’wo (“horse”), from which we have, among others, the Latin word equus (“horse”; compare English “equestrian,” “equine,” and other horse-related terms). If you are puzzled by the transformation of k’ into sh, we also have Sanskrit ashva and Farsi asp (both “horse) , among others.

Despite their formal closeness and meaning, Armenian esh is not the source for Turkish eshek (“ass”), which had its cognates in other Turkic languages of Central Asia. However, it is not impossible that it could have been the unidentified language of Asia Minor that became the initial source for Latin asinus and, in the end, for English “ass.”

There is another puzzle to conclude: Armenian esh did not keep the original meaning of “horse,” for which we have another word of Indo-European origin, ձի (tzi).

As Mr. Spock, of “Star Trek” fame, would have said, “fascinating.”