The Language of Law

The Language of Law	 | One Hour Translation

The language of the law is intimidating and frustrating due to the combination of borrowed words, dead languages, and archaisms.

I love language – it’s one of the greatest and most entertaining puzzles in existence, all these amazing languages that have evolved and grown up around the world. Far from being alarmed by the differences between our cultures and ways of speaking, I’m energised by them – it’s wonderful, and beautiful, and always intriguing.

Even the “dull” aspects of language, the difficult and the frustrating are exciting to me. Take legalese – the legal language of the courts and lawyers. Many people, including many translation professionals, find legal language to be frustrating and difficult to slog through, filled with archaic expressions and difficult phrases – not to mention the outright borrowed foreign words and words and phrases from dead languages!

Many assume legal language is designed to require a ‛language translation’ expert (the lawyer) as a way of keeping ordinary folks from understanding what’s happening, but this isn’t true. Legal language has formed into its modern form through an organic process of language evolution and historic forces.

Roman Law and the Catholic Church

First of all, many of the “foreign” sounding terms and words in legalese stem directly from Latin, which makes sense, because Roman Law is the foundation upon which much of the West’s legal system is based. That legal system was the only legal system some regions of the world knew for centuries, and it survived after the fall of the Roman Empire because the Roman Catholic Church used Latin and thus preserved much of those legal writings and concepts.

Viewed that way, it’s not surprising that Latin remains an integral part of the modern English legal language.

French and the Norman Conquest

Many words in the English language that entered via the legal world are actually French – contract, schedule, terms and conditions, and quash are a few quick examples. These words made it into legalese through the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The Normans spoke French, and for several centuries after this conquest French was the official language of English courts – so it’s also not surprising that many French words survive today in English legalese.

Archaisms and Tradition

English law is based on two concepts for laws: Common law and statutory law. Common law is an interpretation of law based on prior findings and tradition – it evolves naturally over time. Statutory laws are laws enacted by the government to address specific situations.

Common law means that the law is very tradition-based. Some concepts of common law go back thousands of years, after all. So it’s not surprising that many of the legal terms used today are archaic. Even though English has evolved and modernised, the law moves more slowly, and using the same language that was used a long time ago allows for an easier application of ancient concepts to the modern day.

Legalese can be frustrating and opaque to anyone not trained in it – but it’s also fascinating and beautiful in its own way.

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