Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Language Of Law

If you've ever read a contract, had the horrendous misfortune to deal with bureaucracy, or had a run-in with the law, you'll have come across the wonderful linguistic minefield that is legal language and jargon. Today we'll be looking at legal English as it has been used in the United Kingdom.

Once the Romans conquered England, Latin became the de facto language of the law in the country. Though it was later on that Latin would noticeably change day-to-day English, it did take root in the legal system earlier since it was the Romans who ruled and enforced the law.

The opening page of the Law of Æthelberht
After the Romans left England, the Anglo-Saxons brought their own rules and, as a result, law was discussed, explained, and enforced using Anglo-Saxon or Old English. By the beginning of the 7th century, it was the Law of Æthelberht that established the rules of the Kingdom of Kent. These published rules were indeed written in what is now known as Old English. This was the first example of published law in a Germanic language, and one of the earliest examples of written Old English. With the arrival of the Normans, the language of the legal system in England took a turn. Anglo-Saxon was removed and Anglo-French became the language of legal proceedings. Though records were still kept in Latin, English terms managed to find their way into the lexicon of law. In terms of style, since words of French and Latin origin were considered to be of a higher register than those of Germanic origins, French and Latin words were often preferred in a legal setting over their Germanic counterparts. That said, lawyers would still provide word pairings from both etymological roots in order to make things clearer.