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The translation of "law" to other European languages faces several difficulties. In most European languages, there are two different words that can be translated to English as "law ", for instance:

Dutch: recht and wet
French: droit and loi
German: Recht and Gesetz
Italian: diritto and legge
Latin: ius/iuris and lex/legis
Lithuanian: teis? and istatymas
Portuguese: direito and lei
Spanish: derecho and ley

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.

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


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" ( right) and "objective ius" (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 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 works have translated Recht as objective right (see Steiner, 2002, p. 276).

Present day continental law schools and faculties claim to study ius. Mediaeval universities, on the contrary, usually had a faculty of leges.

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.

Further reading

Émile Benveniste (1969) Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, vol. 2, Pouvoir, droit, religion, Paris: Minuit.
Berkowitz, Roger (2005) The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, Harvard University Press.
Fletcher, George (2001) "In honour of 'Ius et Lex'. Some thoughts on speaking about law".
Hans Kelsen (1960) Pure Theory of Law, second edition.
Hillel Steiner (2002), "Working Rights", in Kramer, Simmonds, Steiner, A debate over rights, Oxford: Oxford University.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia