Introduction to legal English

1 Introduction to legal English


The English language contains elements from many different European languages and has also borrowed words from a wide variety of other languages. It is impossible to grasp how these influences affect the language without knowing a little about the history of the British Isles.

Prior to the Roman invasion in 55 BC, the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic dialect. Latin made little impression until St. Augustine arrived in 597 AD to spread Christianity. Latin words are regularly used in English, particularly in professional language. In the legal profession, Latin phrases like inter alia (among others) and per se (in itself) remain in current use.

Subsequently, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded the British Isles from mainland northern Europe. The language they brought with them forms the basis of what is known as Old English. This gives us the 100 most commonly used words in the English language (words like God, man, woman, child, love, live, go, at, to).

The Vikings began to raid the north-east of England from Scandinavia from the eighth century onwards. At a later date, a significant number of Vikings settled in this area, bringing with them their own linguistic contribution (which can be seen for example in the numerous place names in the north-east of England (and Scotland) ending in –by or –thorpe, –wick, –ham and in words such as egg, husband, law, take, knife).

In 1066 the Normans invaded from northern France and conquered England. Words such as court, parliament, justice, sovereign and marriage come from this period.

Later, the English helped themselves initially to further words from French, such as chauffeur, bourgeois, elite. As the British Empire expanded, further opportunities to borrow words arose – words such as taboo and pukka came into the English language from that period.

The result of this multiplicity of linguistic influences is a rich and diverse language with a complex grammar and many synonyms. For example, a coming together of two or more people could be a meeting or gathering (Old English), assignation or encounter (Old French), a rendezvous, rally or reunion (French), a caucus (Algonquin), pow-wow (Narragansett) or a tryst (Old French).


Legal English reflects the mixture of languages which has produced the English language generally. However, 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.

Therefore, for several centuries following the Norman invasion, three languages were used in England. English remained the spoken language of the majority of the population, but almost all writing was done in French or Latin. English was not used in legal matters.

In 1356, the Statute of Pleading was enacted (in French). It stated that all legal proceedings should be in English, but recorded in Latin. Nonetheless, the use of French in legal pleadings continued into the seventeenth century in some areas of the law. In this later period, new branches, in particular of commercial law, began to develop entirely in English and remain relatively free of French-based terminology.

As the printed word became more commonplace, some writers made a deliberate effort to adopt words derived from Latin, with the aim of making their text appear more sophisticated. Some legal words taken from Latin in this way are adjacent, frustrate, inferior, legal, quiet and subscribe. Some writers also started to use a Latin word order. This led to an ornate style, deliberately used to impress rather than inform. Even today, Latin grammar is responsible for some of the ornateness and unusual word order of legal documents. It also lies behind the frequent use of shall constructions in legal documents.

English was adopted for different kinds of legal documents at different times. Wills began to be written in English in about 1400. Statutes were written in Latin until about 1300, in French until 1485, in English and French for a few years, and in English alone from 1489.


The use of different registers of English determine whether the language used sounds down-to-earth or sophisticated. The register achieved is dictated largely by whether the words used are mostly Old English or Old Norse in origin or whether they come from Latin or French.

As noted above, Latin and French have particular relevance to legal and professional language, while Old English and Old Norse are more relevant to daily speech.

To examine the truth of this statement, look at the following sentences:

Example 1

The merchandise contained in the consignment is of inferior quality to that anticipated by the purchaser.

The – Old English

Merchandise – from Old French

Contained – from Latin

In – from Latin

The – Old English

Consignment – from Latin

Is – Old English

Of – Old English

Inferior – from Latin

Quality – from Latin

To – Old English

That – Old English

Anticipated – from Latin

By – Old English

The – Old English

Purchaser – from Old French

Sixteen words: eight Old English, six from Latin, two from Old French.

Now consider the same idea expressed in a different way:

The standard of the goods the delivery is made up of is worse than the buyer thought it would be.

Twenty words: 18 from Old English, two from Old French.

We notice the following:

  The first sentence is more sophisticated than the second, both in grammatical construction and in terminology.

  The first sentence is more appropriate to the standards of legal English.

  The first sentence contains 16 words, while the second sentence contains 20.

  The first sentence consists of 50 per cent Latin or French-derived words, whereas in the second only 10 per cent of the words are Latin- or French-derived.

1.3.2 Example 2

The difference is even more marked when we speak of everyday things. Consider this sentence:

I went to the nearest shop with the dog, and met my wife on the way.

I – Old English

Went – Old English

To – Old English

The – Old English

Nearest – Old Norse

Shop – Old French

With – Old English

The – Old English

Dog – Old English

And – Old English

Met – Old English

My – Old English

Wife – Old English

On – Old English

The – Old English

Way – Old English

Sixteen words: 14 Old English, one Old Norse, one Old French.

We could express the same idea as follows:

I proceeded to the closest emporium accompanied by the dog and encountered my spouse along the route.