Monday, June 01, 2009

The People's Democratic Republic of Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

One of the things one learns after earning a degree in Linguistics is that a degree in Linguistics does not directly convert to the ability to buy food and pay rent. Fortunately, the minor study in German did, so things worked out all right in the long run. Nevertheless, the old Linguistics sheepskin still helps to make life interesting when I reflect on some of the mysteries that swirl about us in the vastness of creation.

For instance, why is it that:

1) If a country has the word "Democratic" in its official name, there is almost certainly no trace of democracy?; and,

2) If a country has the word "People's" in its official name, you can take it to the bank that "the people" have absolutely no voice in its governance?

As it happens, someone else has asked the same question.

Back on April 1st, Slate Magazine ran this article by Juliet Lapidos - The Undemocratic Peoples Republic of Korea: Why Do the Most Totalitarian Countries Always Have the Most Democratic-Sounding Names? In this article, Ms Lapidos offered a few interesting possible explanations for this odd case of linguistic legerdemain.

The first explanation is that it's a legacy of the Former Soviet Union's influence. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the czarist government and deposed the Russian aristocracy, they wanted to show that "the people" now ran the country. The word "soviet" in Russian means "council," which was how the Bolsheviks viewed their new government - councils of the people making decisions together. Of course, we all know how that worked out ... nevertheless, many countries taken over by or influenced by the Soviet Union after World War II took to calling themselves "People's Republics" as a way of indicating that the people and the government were one.

Use of the term "Democratic" may have been intended to mean "socialist republic" rather than "bourgeois republic" in the happy Communist wonderland of the future, a way to draw a line between Western democracies that ignored their people and the "new" democracies of the developing world that were building the Worker's Paradises. In Africa, the use of populist terms like "people's" and "democratic" may have represented a way of separating newly independent nations from their colonial past.

All of which is useful to think about when we consider how well our own government represents the opinions and interests of the average guy buying his (or her) 250-ounce coffee down at the 7-11.

Which brings up another question: how "united" are the "United States," really?

But that's a discussion for another day.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



KKTSews said...

Back when I was stationed in WEST Germany in the 80's and there was still such a thing as a live operator, my sister had quite an argument with an international operator. She was trying to call me in the Federal Republic of Germany, but the operator kept trying to connect her through the Democratic German Republic (East Germany). The operator insisted that the "democratic" one MUST be the "free" or Western one. Man-on-the-street ignorance is one thing, but the titles surely do not help.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I don't believe we are very United. When you look at it we're 50 small countries in one and all of the fuquad up.

Amanda said...

What a co-incidence! We were talking about the names of countries in the car ride home from Penang yesterday and we talked about all the 'democratic' sounding ones. Thanks for shedding more light on the topic.

Leslie David said...

If you listen to all the idiots pushing secession, I'd say not very. Too bad they don't realize the cost to establish their own military, government, currency, embassies, etc. Of course I think we should give Texas back to Mexico.

Mike said...

Here's a new name for the US. The capitalist socialist republic of the sort of tolerant of each other states.