Legal English


"Turning Law into English"


During the Commonwealth (1649-60) the renewed complaints about law being still kept in a foreign language grew louder and louder. The lawyers were increasingly accused of imposing “hotch potch French and Latin... for their own gain to instruct few others of their own generation, to cheat the universalitie of the Nation of their rights and understandings, and make themselves, and their Counsels most learned in other affairs” (John Jones, The New Returna Brevium, 1650). 

Under the pressure of the new campaign to return the law to English, Parliament, in 1650, passed “An Act for turning the Books of the Law, and all Proces and Proceedings in Courts of Justice, into English.” Unlike the Statute of 1362 that had been principally directed at the language of oral pleading, the new law ordered all law writings and proceedings to be translated into English. The language of the new statute in itself is telling linguistic evidence of the extent to which English had absorbed the law terminology from the foreign sources. With the exception of the old English words law, book, writ, and the half-French, half-English court hand, every law word in it is borrowed from either French or Latin:


The Parliament have thought fit to Declare and Enact, and be it Declared and Enacted by this present Parliament, and by the Authority of the same, That all the Report-Books of the Resolutions of Judges, and other Books of the Law of England, shall be Translated into the English Tongue: And that from and after the First day of January, 1650, all Report-Books of the Resolutions of Judges and all other Books of the Law of England, which shall be Printed, shall be in the English Tongue onely.

And be it further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That from and after the first Return of Easter Term, which shall be in the year one thousand six hundred fifty and one, all Writs, Proces and Returns thereof, and all Pleadings, Rules, orders, Indictments, Inquisitions, Certificates; and all Patents, Commissions, Records, Judgements, Statutes, Recognizances, Roles, Entries, and Proceedings of Courts Leet, Courts Baron, and Customary Courts, and all Proceedings whatsoever in any Courts of Justice within this Commonwealth, and which concerns the Law, and Administration of Justice, shall be in the English Tongue onely, and not in Latine or French, or any other Language then English, Any Law, Custom or Usage heretofore to the Contrary notwithstanding. And that the same, and every of them, shall be written in an ordinary, usual and legible Hand and character, and not in any Hand commonly called Court-hand.

And be it lastly enacted and ordained, That all and every person and persons offending against this Law, shall for every such offense lose and forfeit the full sum of Twenty pounds of lawful English Money; the one moyety thereof to the use of the Commonwealth, and the other moyety to such person and persons as will sue for the same in any Court of Record, by Action of Debt, Suit, Bill, Plaint or Information; in which no Wager of Law, Essoyn, or other Delay shall be admitted or allowed.


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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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  English among Other Languages

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