Armenian Language Corner

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.