A History of legal English

The history of the English language is relatively well-known: the Anglo-Saxon tribes brought Old English (a thoroughly Germanic cousin of Dutch and German) to Britain in the 5th century. To a speaker of Modern English today, it’s nearly unrecognisable as English, and you would require a translator to understand it. Old English was complemented by the introduction of Old Norse thanks to the Vikings invading in the 8th century. When the sophisticated Normans arrived in the 11th century they brought the French language over with them. As people from all over the world moved to London, English borrowed phrases from all languages.

In spite of the Roman invasion in 55 BC, Latin made little impression until St. Augustine arrived in AD 597 to spread the gospel of Christianity. Latin words are still used in legal English and general English today. Phrases such as inter alia, stare decisis, obiter dicta and ratio decidendi are frequently found in legal documents and texts.

The Norman Conquest

In 1066 the Normans invaded from northern France and conquered England. For the following 300 years, written English disappeared and French became the language of official proceedings. French was the language of the conquerors and words such as bailiff, court, crime, jury, parliament, justice and sovereign all entered the English language during this time.

Unlike in France, no language Academy has ever been established, meaning that the language is more flexible than any other major language in the world. The blogger James Nicoll suggested that English ‘pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.’ And he had a point.

Latin remained the language of the Church and education. English was the spoken language of daily life for most people, but the social class of landlords and government officials who had maintained written English were replaced by the Normans.

Legal English is Formed

Legal English uses the plethora of languages that has formed the English
we speak today. Modern legal English owes a particular debt to
French and Latin. Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, French
became the official language of England, although most ordinary people still spoke
English. For a period of nearly 300 years, French was the language of legal
proceedings, with the result that many words in current legal use have their roots
in this period. These include property, estate, chattel, lease, executor and tenant.
During this period, Latin remained the language of formal records and statutes.
However, since only the learned were fluent in Latin, it never became the language
of legal pleading or debate.

During the 1300s, English began its return as a written language among the educated class, although French and Latin were still more common. By that time, English had changed considerably. A few centuries of language evolution had led to different pronunciations and Old English writing habits had been lost. As English started to make its written comeback, people were trying to work out how to spell English words and how to find the right words in formal situations. English was completely at home in informal settings but less sure of itself in other registers.

As the language was still developing, using the closest French word proved to be the easiest solution. Court proceedings, government declarations and property ownership documents continued to rely heavily on French vocabulary to fill in the gaps where English words were unknown.

Governjudgeofficepunishmoneycontractnumberactionstudent and other French words became part of the vocabulary of English administration – and then of the general population as most people had some sort of interaction with officialdom.

In the following few hundred years after the Normans arrived, it evolved into Middle English – still Germanic, but less thoroughly so, as grammatical endings disappeared and French vocabulary flowed in. Middle English looks much more like the English we know.

The Legal English School offers online training courses in spoken and written legal English for lawyers, law students, translators and legal professionals. For information, contact us here or fill in the form below.

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