I can guess what you thought when you looked at today’s date! Ah 31st May, the anniversary of the execution of Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria. No? Okay, fair enough. However back in 1076 this date was taken as the end of the Revolt of the Earls. It was arguably the end of Anglo-Saxon Britain. As many of you already know in 1066, after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror became the first Norman King. So why am I giving you a history lesson when we’re here to talk about Law?
After 1066 French became the language of the elite. During the reign of Edward I the first statute was written in French and Law was professionalised. This led to the development of a weird little dialect called law French.
As you can see from the image below law French is a bizarre mix of French, Latin, Anglo-Saxon and whatever other languages happened to be hanging around.
I told you it was weird! Were you able to understand it? Here’s the translation. See how you did.
Continental French was originally being used in courts but during the reign of Henry III and Edward I Anglo-French was used to create an entirely new legal vocabulary ‘giving special meanings to ordinary words’ This meant Anglo French quickly began to break away from continental French. We can still see evidence of this today. For example tort in English is ‘A wrongful act or an infringement of a right (other than under contract) leading to legal liability’. Tort in French simply means wrong. The translation of the English tort is acte délictuel.
Law French was so separate that a French person living in England during the time of Elizabeth I referred to it as a house that was so ruined you could barely tell there had ever been a house there at all.
I assume he wasn’t exactly a fan…
Despite the French seeing their language as having been corrupted beyond recognition, law French enjoyed a respectable status in its British home. Ironically the British were proud of their law French as being in some way being both a symptom of and a contributor to their Englishness. Maitland argues that this isn’t as much of a paradox as it initially seems. He puts forth that because English lawyers had created a ‘highly technical’ vocabulary, their dialect was ‘tough and impervious to foreign influence’. He believed the strength of the language was in its artificiality and how it was designed for its purpose. He seems to think creating a new dialect was easier and better than using what already existed in Continental French. Feels a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
Due to the above reasons, law French soon became well regarded. Despite this, in 1362 Parliament introduced a statute stating that French was ‘trop desconue’ to be used in courts. I think it’s quite easy to see how little hope they had when the statute itself was produced in law French.
However, the statute did create some change. The oral pleading of the court now took place in English yet, the case reports were always produced in law French. This meant that Scriveners were effectively translating the spoken words. Baker argues this was a time-saver as it was effectively a shorthand ‘made and adapted for legal purposes’. He does not seem to think there was an issue with this way of proceeding. Maybe he was right but, it does not seem as if the courts were completely certain this ‘translating’ was bulletproof. In 1399 English text was used to preserve Henry IV’s formal statement of his controversial claim to the throne. This ‘removed the ambiguity or blame that might arise if the clerk of parliament were to translate them into French or Latin and thus inadvertently modify their meaning’.
So what did? As time progressed French was losing its status. Fast. In Edward II’s reign (1307-1327) French was being taught in schools. It was likely any lawyer could ‘rapidly write French of a sort’. It was far less likely they had ever written a single sentence in English. Once French’s status started to decline, this quickly changed and the awkwardness of law French became glaringly obvious.
In 1601 Carey states in his book that, ‘to the peaceable government ignorance of the law is no small enemy’. And this in truth was a major part of the issue. Rastell was the author of Termes de la Ley, a dictionary of law terms, which will be shown in our exhibition. He likely compiled his dictionary due to his belief that a lack of access to the law ‘was an impediment to good order’. In a country where ignorance of the law was no excuse and where the laws were unreadable to even a reasonably educated man how could there be any justice at all?
Furthermore the language itself was already starting to sicken. After the 14th Century the grammar and vocabulary started to wither. In the time of Henry VI, Fortescue, the Lord Chief Justice said without knowing the language ‘wherein so much of our laws yet in force is written, a man cannot pretend to the name of Lawyer’. This at first may seem like an indication of law French’s respected status. In one way, it obviously is. However the very fact Fortescue feels the need to state this suggests there are those who feel law French has had its day. Furthermore his logic for the necessity of law French is for understanding laws of the past, not for creating new material. By the mid-Tudor times the active vocabulary was less than 1000 words and legal writers ‘unashamedly inserted English words’.
So the solution is obvious. Get rid of law French and everyone will be happy… Well not quite. In fact there was horror at the idea! Roger North felt that the ‘law is scarcely expressible properly in English’. Those who had learned law French were convinced that the nuances and exactness of the language could not possibly be translated into English. Harvey feels that the crux of the matter was the risk of ‘ambiguity’ and refers to the ‘dangers of re-encoding’.
Despite this, by 1488 English had replaced French entirely as the legislative language. But law French could not die so easily. As Maitland puts it ‘there were still men living who thought about law in this queer slang’. Don’t believe him? The images below are from a book of statutes which is stored in our locked cases. Though the text is in English, the owner has actually annotated it in law French.
Still all good things must come to an end. By 1779 Kelham wrote that his dictionary had become ‘necessary’. Even he confessed to not knowing the sense of some law French words. People have actually attempted dictionaries since. One of the most recent was around 1914. Pike had written all but the introduction when suddenly he died. I know what you’re thinking. At least he had basically finished the dictionary! Unfortunately he had left a bizarre request that none of his manuscripts should be published after his death. What could be done? A Mr. H G. Richardson was sent to inspect the proofs. He reported back that it would be ‘no loss’ if Pike’s wishes were observed. Ouch, poor old Pike. Still at least his ghost can rest easy that his wishes were followed.
So why is any of this important? A dialect was born, grew up and died all within less than 200 years. Big deal.
First of all, although the main plant was weeded out from the garden of English, its roots still remain and can easily be seen in English today. Any fans of the Oxford dictionaries’ blog may have seen a piece they did back in 2015 about the origin of the word culprit which derives from the old legal formula spoken by the prosecutor, Culpable: prest d’averrer nostre bille .
The phrase Oyez spoken at the beginning of court proceedings came from the old French word oir to hear.
Even royalty cannot escape its tendrils. The royal assent to parliamentary bills is still written as La Reine le vault (The Queen wills it).
Since we can see almost the entire life span of law French, it highlights some interesting issues surrounding language. Many people complain that recently language is degenerating with the introduction of variations, such as those used in text speak. However law French shows how quickly language has always changed to suit its purpose.
Fast forward a few hundred years and Ki has entered French as a quicker spelling used for texting and the internet.
The debate about whether the law should be understandable or if it needs exact, almost scientific terminology, is still raging today. In his article Peter Butt argues very clearly that legalese (lawyer speak as opposed to plain English) should be done away with. However, even he admits that, ‘Some genuine legal terms of art are difficult to translate into plain language…and sometimes it may even be more efficient to leave them in the document’. The main argument to remove law French was so that the law would be understandable for the average person. Law French is freshly buried and yet ‘legalese’ is already causing the same problems. It makes you wonder, if the law is written in plain English now, will people in 500 years’ time once again realise that a new law dialect has grown up?
The issues that we have used law French to highlight such as translation, simplicity, meaning and the need to be understood all feel very relevant today. The EU has 24 official languages. This means all EU legislation and significant documents are translated into each of the 24 languages. When you consider the law French lawyers’ disgust at the idea of translating from law French into just one language, you might not be blamed for thinking they would have short-circuited at the very notion of a legal document being produced in 24 different languages.
Furthermore after Brexit (sorry I know we’re all sick to death of the word!) the question has been raised whether English will have a place in the EU at all. There are many articles debating this if you’re interested but, the one that really grabbed me was by Marko Modiano who concludes that if the British were no longer present as regulators, ‘It would allow continental Europeans an opportunity to claim English and in so doing form it to best suit their own needs’. You can’t help but wonder how long before Euro-English becomes unintelligible to native English speakers. How long before Euro-English needs to be translated into English?
Language and the law are always going to be awkward bed-fellows. The point of legislation is that is can be referred to as proof of what is right and what is wrong, that it is not amended without lengthy debate. This leads to texts that are frozen in the vocabulary of their time. Conversely language never freezes. It is constantly being redefined and readjusted to suit new circumstances and accomplish new tasks. It changes, it adapts, new meanings are given while older meanings are lost entirely. Law French is a perfect example how language can be considered ‘so apt, so natural and so proper’ at one time and yet within a couple of hundred years its vocabulary is already a mystery. Although law French is from a specific pinpoint in time, the issues it raises are far more universal and ubiquitous.
***If you’re interested in seeing some examples of law French in action, you can check out our new display in the Law Library’s Main Reading Room. We’ve brought many of our older books out from our locked cases, so you can see the usage of law French during its lifetime. ***
 S. Lusignan, ‘French Language in Contact with English: Social Context and Linguistic Change’, in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (ed.), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain : The French of England, c.1100-c.1500, Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer, 2009, p.21. Available from e-book library, (accessed 30th April 2018).
 J.Baker, Manual of French Law, Aldershot, Scolar, 1990, p.3
 https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/tort (accessed 30 April 2018)
 J.Baker, Manual of French Law, Aldershot, Scolar, 1990, p.4
 http://www.languageandlaw.org/TEXTS/STATS/PLEADING.HTM (accessed 30 April 2018).
 W. M. Ormrod, ‘The Language of Complaint: Multiligualism and Petitioning in Later Medieval England’, in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (ed.), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain : The French of England, c.1100-c.1500, Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer, 2009, p.21. Available from e-book library, (accessed 30th April 2018), p. 32.
 J.Baker, Manual of French Law, Aldershot, Scolar, 1990, p.3
 W. M. Ormrod, ‘The Language of Complaint: Multiligualism and Petitioning in Later Medieval England’, in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (ed.), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England, c.1100-c.1500, Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer, 2009, p.21. Available from e-book library, (accessed 30th April 2018), p. 39.
 R. Carey, Le necessarie vse & fruit de les pleadings, London, Adam Islip, p.3 Available from E-book library (accessed 30 April 2018).
 David Harvey, The law emprynted and Englysshed : the printing press as an agent of change in law and legal culture 1475-164, London, Hart Publishing. Available from e-book library, (accessed 30 April 2018), 382.8/1001.
 Cited in R. Kelham, A dictionary of the Norman or Old French Language, London, W. Clarke and Sons, 1779, p.VI
 J.Baker, Manual of French Law, Aldershot, Scolar, 1990, p.35
 David Harvey, The law emprynted and Englysshed : the printing press as an agent of change in law and legal culture 1475-164, London, Hart Publishing. Available from e-book library, (accessed 30 April 2018), 633.3/1001.
 R. Kelham, A dictionary of the Norman or Old French Language, London, W. Clarke and Sons, 1779, p.22
 J.Baker, Manual of French Law, Aldershot, Scolar, 1990, p.9.
 https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/02/12/curious-case-culprit/ (accessed 30 April 2018)
 W. M. Ormrod, ‘The Language of Complaint: Multiligualism and Petitioning in Later Medieval England’, in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (ed.), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England, c.1100-c.1500, Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer, 2009, p.21. Available from e-book library, (accessed 30 April 2018), p.40 .
 http://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/3751/1/1332-1452-1-SM.pdf (accessed 30 April 2018)
 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/weng.12264 (accessed 30 April 2018)
 David Harvey, The law emprynted and Englysshed : the printing press as an agent of change in law and legal culture 1475-164, London, Hart Publishing. Available from e-book library, (accessed 30 April 2018), 628.5/1001.