Let’s make a language, part 26a: Government (Intro)

Ah, government. One of those things you can’t really live with, and you can’t really live without. But let’s not get political today. There’s enough of that going on without us adding our two cents. Instead, let’s talk about the ways government can be filtered through the lens of language.

Rules of rule

First off, remember that there’s no real “hierarchy” of government systems. None of them are truly natural, and all have their problems. (Democracy, so the quote goes, is the worst form of government…except for all the others.) Rome had a republic 2000 years before the US, the UK and Japan both have hereditary monarchs who wield little actual power, and although the West may have backed away from theocracy centuries ago, it’s still alive and well in the Middle East.

Thus, there’s not really a point where we can say that this form of government can’t be native to a language’s culture. Maybe you won’t find technocratic socialism in a Middle Ages society, and it’s doubtful that a far-future Earth will have brutal autocrats in charge. But the concepts don’t really change much. No matter how a land is governed, some things are near universal.

Most English terms regarding this subject are derived from Classical sources, usually Latin and Greek: republic, democracy, judicial. That’s okay; political science really started to get going around the same time that the classical revival was on, so it’s no surprise that the thinkers of that era chose the old tongues. And in many cases, the concepts themselves come from those same sources.

But there’s no reason it can’t be different elsewhere. Maybe a language’s culture developed a form of representative government on its own. Growing out of some kind of tribal council, for example. Then, republic would very likely be translated by a native root. So would elect and a lot more. As an alternative, they may use a “calque”, or loan translation, translating the meaning of the borrowed word instead of taking its form directly.

Law and order

Government, however, encompasses more than just the rule of a nation-state. It can also include a lot of basic societal structure. How are cities managed? Who protects those who cannot protect themselves? What about handling war, crime, or just simple grievances?

In many cases, a language will have native roots for the most fundamental concepts. Every civilization has something like cities; that’s practically the definition of civilization. War is, alas, within our very nature. Codes of law date back millennia, whether Hammurabi or the Hebrews. At its heart, you might even call all government merely different varieties of conflict resolution, and one of those philosophical conlangs could definitely find something there.

However you do it, the “oldest” things are likely to be native, but it’s not always certain. That’s especially true if you trace a culture’s history. There might be periods of occupation or enslavement, where they were wholly subservient to another people; in this case, many words would be borrowed from the “overlord” tongue, and not always with positive connotations. On the other hand, an imperialist culture would probably have more native terms for its institutions, rarely borrowing at all from its victims. (After all, they’ve already got all the words they need to rule.)

High and low

Now, all this pertains to government as it’s seen by its citizens. Not everybody is a political scientist, so most will tend to use the words they know. On the other hand, those who work with or study government will develop a much broader vocabulary. Legal codes tend to use verbose language, as they need to be definitive. Political treatises very often need to draw very fine lines, so they’ll need complex words or phrases to subdivide the concept space. And there’s nothing stopping the government itself from creating new words to describe its actions. (We’ve got a few of those in English, such as gerrymandering.)

In all, this causes a kind of diglossia. There’s the “high” language of the learned, describing nuances that most people neither want nor need to know, using words and phrases like autonomous, technocratic, subcommittee, or continuing resolution. Then you have the “low” vernacular, which talks plainly of votes and armies and judges and the like. It’s like this in many fields, particularly the scientific, but it somehow seems “thicker” when government gets involved.

Not every language will be subject to this process. It’s more likely to occur with agglutinating languages, because they’re practically made for it. Isolating types, on the other hand, will have more complex phrases instead of words, and those phrases might retain a bit of their transparency. That’s not to say the nuances won’t be there, but they’re expressed in different ways.

Moving on

No new part next month, as I’m working on a few other writing projects that need to take precedence. But I’ll be back in September with Part 27, covering the other half of the phrase “church and state”. Yes, we’ll be looking at religion, and I won’t deny that I’m glad I’m taking a month off before I deal with that.

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