Legal English


Attempts to Restrict Law French


The lawyers went on thinking and writing in French down to the end of the seventeenth century, despite repeated attempts to replace it by English. The first of these attempts was made in the fourteenth century. This was a time of patriotic animosity: an era of some of England’s most celebrated victories over the French – Crécy, Poitiers, Calais. It was also the time of the Black Death, a plague of massive proportions. This catastrophe contributed to the breakdown of the old feudal order and strengthened the position of the English-speaking masses.  

On the wave of the popular trend towards English came the Statute of Pleading (1362), requiring English to be used for court proceedings. Although it denounced French, the statute was written in French. It declared that French was “much unknown”: litigants did not understand what was said in the courts for or against them by lawyers, and that where law was learned and used in the vulgar tongue, violations were less likely and the citizen was better able to protect himself. 

Its good intentions notwithstanding, the Statute of Pleading did not succeed in displacing or restricting the use of law French. It came up with a requirement of English only for court use, which at the time meant mostly oral use. But even here it made allowances for the use of “ancient terms and forms” in Latin and French if they were found to be more convenient. In practice this meant that most of the pleading continued in French. It could hardly have been otherwise in the circumstances when most of the current legal learning was in French and when the practitioner was required to adhere rigidly to the prescribed form of the writs. 

Nevertheless, the Statute of Pleading opened a period of gradual transition from a somewhat restrained use of oral French in court to the time about a hundred years later when law French was “oftener writ than spoken”. It spelt the beginning of the great crossing-over of law French into English, which accelerated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The lawyers continued to develop legal concepts by refining and adding to the meaning of the French words. But they were increasingly obliged to do so within the framework of the English language. A great number of French words were adopted with many technical French terms carried into English without change. 

The rest of law French was dying a natural death. By the seventeenth century much of it had dwindled into a macaronic medley, a bizarre hotchpotch of French and English, the most celebrated instance of which is the report of the prisoner being sentences who:


...ject un Brickbat a le dit Justice que narrowly mist, & pur ceo immediately fuit Indictment drawn per Noy envers le prisoner, & son dexter manus amputee & fix al Gibbet sur que luy mesme immediatement hange in presence de Court.


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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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