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The translation of "law" to other European languages faces several difficulties. In most European languages, as well as some others influenced by European languages, there are two different words that can be translated to English as "law". For the general comparison in this article the Latin terms "ius" and "lex" will be used. According to Wiktionary lex can be defined as a rule issued by a political authority, such as the Parliament or the Government, while ius refers to whatever rules and standards the courts ought to apply. Etymologically, ius has some relation to right, just or straight.



There are in English two more or less synonymous adjectives, both from Latin origin, that correspond etymologically to the Continental distinction: the common word legal and the less common jural (or even juristic). However, the words ius and lex are not synonyms.

Lex can sometimes be translated as legislation, statute, statutory law or even act, even if the corresponding legislatio, statutus and actus also exist. Lex is law made by a political authority, such as the Parliament or the Government. In modern societies, leges are usually written, though this is not a necessary feature. Lex is often used in the plural (leges), since each act is one lex.

On the other hand, ius is also polysemous, since it can mean either law or right. Continental legal scholars sometimes make a distinction between "subjective ius" (any legal right) and "objective ius" (the whole law), but this does not happen in ordinary language. The two senses of ius can be easily distinguished in most cases.

When ius means law, it usually has some semantic connection to what is right, just or straight. For instance, the German motto Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit (literally Unity and law and freedom)) has been translated as Unity and justice and freedom, even though there is a different word for justice (Gerechtigkeit). Lex does not have such a connection. Some translators of Kant's and Hegel's works have translated Recht as objective right (see Steiner, 2002, p. 276), although those works, especially Kant's, are just about law or, at most, about the best law.

Present day continental law schools and faculties claim to study ius. Mediaeval universities, on the contrary, usually had a faculty of leges. English Wikipedia's article on "law" links to other languages Wikipedias' articles on the equivalent to ius.


Latin ius lex Dutch recht wet
French droit loi German Recht Gesetz
Hungarian jog törvény Italian diritto legge
Latvian tiesības likums Russian право закон
Lithuanian teisė įstatymas Maltese ordni liġi
Portuguese direito lei Swedish rätt lag

There are a few European languages other than English where "law" translates into one word, such as Polish prawo. On the other side, a prominent non-European language which makes the distinction is Arabic, where قانون (qānūn) is equivalent to lex and ﺣـق (ḥaqq) is equivalent to ius.

To clarify the difference one may look at how these phrases translate into Spanish:

Civil Law = Derecho Civil Forbidden by law = Prohibido por la ley
Common Law = Derecho Común Act of Congress = Ley del Congreso
Immigration law = Derecho de Inmigración Law of Immigration = Ley de Inmigración
Natural Law = Derecho Natural Laws of Nature = Leyes de la Naturaleza

This difference between English and other European languages is sometimes invoked in the debates between legal positivism, natural law and interpretivism. Berkowitz (2005) argues that the rise of legal positivism corresponds to a "transformation of the sense of 'law', a difficult topic made more so by a particular limitation of the English language", the non-distinction between ius and lex. Hart himself, in The concept of law (pp. 206 ff.), argued that the distinction between ius and lex might clarify the relation between law and morality. A similar point is made by Gardner (2004) in order to distinguish between "law" in general and "legal law".

For the sake of examples, this article uses the Latin words.

The discussion on the relation between ius and lex

Continental legal positivists of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century claimed that all ius is lex.

References and further reading



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Old High German reht


  • IPA: /ʀɛçt/


Recht n. (genitive Rechts or Rechtes, plural Rechte)

  1. a right, privilege
  2. a title, claim
  3. the law

Derived terms


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