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The Origins of Legal English

 

One of the natural consequences of the power of the Norman upper classes was that most of the terms pertaining to the law were of French origin. The medieval English lawyer took everyday Anglo-Norman words and gradually developed legal terminology out of them. By the middle of the thirteenth century legal French took undisputed hold of the courts, becoming the language of a new legal literature.

The French trend in the law was contrary to the English trend of the times. There is no simple explanation for this. It was rather a combination of circumstances that resulted in the rise of law French. According to David Mellinkoff (The Language of the Law, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963), inertia and self-interest must be listed prominently among those circumstances:

 

For years French had been the language of education... The more English became the common currency of all classes of society, the more French became the mark of the noble and the wealthy. And it was precisely these two groups who sent their sons to the law. No others could afford it. No others had the same interest in knowing the intricacies of the land law. Like other medieval arts organized into guilds, the law was a mystery. And there is no reason to believe that the ruling cliques of England were eager to share the legal mysteries with plebeians.

Seeking to preserve their professional monopoly, lawyers locked up their trade secrets in the safe of the unknown tongue. They made French their langue de métier a highly specialized group-language of a closed professional circle intelligible only to denizens of the law-courts.  

 

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  The Origins of Legal English

  Attempts to Restrict Law French

  "Turning Law into English"

  Tenacity of Law French

  Legal English Today

  Doubling, Tripling & Quadrupling

  The French Legacy

  An Example of Modern Legal English

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