Structural Features of Legal Language

Term Paper 2012 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Other



1. Introduction

2. English as a special language
a. Definition
b. Legal English as a special language

3. Structural features of English legal language
a. Complex sentences
b. Passive style
c. Impersonal constructions

4. Analysis of legal documents
a. Contract
b. Legislative text

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper deals with a specific English language – the legal language. I will focus on a particular aspect of this field - the characteristics of the structure of legal English. Therefore I will give an overview of the central structural features which are typical for legal language. Legal professionals strive for a precise explanation of facts. This aim forces them to use a certain kind of language patterns; including a high amount of definitions in legal texts, as well as numerous complex and ancient phrases deriving from Law French and plentiful enumerations which can all together form a single sentence covering several lines. Considering these special language patterns, the field of law, especially the legal language, becomes completely unapproachable for laymen, as it is almost impossible for them to follow legal discourse or understand legal contracts as well as laws and provisions. Even well-educated native speakers often find it hard to understand the language used in court. But the access to one’s rights and duties is important in a community, so I decided to emphasize the differences between legal language and colloquial language and to show which structural features are characteristic for legal language.

At first I will provide the reader with an overall definition of English as a special language, before I will have a closer look at legal English as a special language – the main topic of this essay. To show the structural features of legal language I will concentrate on three main characteristics in the structure of legal language – in my opinion the three most important ones, even though there are other important attributes as well. In a last step I will point out how these legal structures are used in real life. Therefore I will analyze a contract as well as a legislative text and think about ways to simplify the legal language used there to make it easier to follow such texts.

2. English as a special language

a. Definition

The term ‘special language’ or ‘language for special purposes’ has to be defined, before actually discussing the characteristics of legal language as a special language. In the following, I will operate synonymously with both above-named expressions.

An important characteristic of a special language is its use by experts of a certain field to communicate among each other. Therefore, it can best be described as a language which is used by a particular group of people as well as a language which contains just a special field of interest. I would like to point out, that both characteristics are important and that both together mark a clear distinction between special language and general or colloquial language, although the reference to a special subject is the more dominant feature of a special language.

There are different ways to categorize the matter of special languages. One could states the opinion that special languages are closed systems, because they exist next to the common language. Others could say that special languages just show various deviations concerning the lexicon. But one could also state that it is inadequate to provide an overall definition for special languages, because it is only possible to define them within a certain field. Another party could describe special languages as varieties with general characteristics. In this case institutionalized language planning would have become effective.

I would agree to the last basic approach. Languages for special purposes cannot exist without a standard language; therefore I would call them subsystems of the general language. The acquisition of a special language happens through explicit rules which need common language for their introduction.

An important characteristic of languages for special purposes is their use of a large amount of words that do not exist in ordinary speech, so called technical forms. Some of them cannot be found in general language at all; others are used in a completely different manner, which could lead to misinterpreting.

b. Legal English as a special language

In history, the legal business had its own language at its: Law French. French was an established technical language which still offers expressions for matters today where no alternatives have been found. Nevertheless, starting in the past century, almost all legal concerns have been completed in English, even though it differs from Standard English in many ways. Although the overall language with which lawyers operate is English, not every term of legal English would be tolerated in general English. Therefore, legal language cannot be called official English.

David Mellinkoff names law as a “profession of words” (O’Barr 388). He defines legal language as “the customary language used by lawyers in those common law jurisdictions where English is the official language. It includes distinctive words, meanings, phrases, and modes of expression.” (Mellinkoff 3). In his explanations, he focuses on the fact that legal language is a “label for a speech pattern with a separate identity” (ibid.). He states that it is not only formed by the law alone, but as well by the established speech of the lawyers’ environment, which means that the concurrence of dominant common law and dominant English provides ground for legalese (ibid. 4).

Having studied Mellinkoff’s definition of the concept of legal language, one could wonder if the language of the law can be classified as a variety. Whereas the elements of Law French which remained in the courts might certainly be considered as a distinct language, it serves best to treat legal language as “a variety of English […] [which] follows the rules that govern English in general” (Tiersma 49).

Legal English would no longer function as a language, if one regarded legal English disconnected from the qualities of colloquial language. This starting point is the motivation for linguists to look upon modern legal English as “a set of linguistic features that are superimposed on everyday speech” (ibid. 142). Recently, Linguists have researched language varieties in terms of sublanguages which they define as “languages used in a body of texts dealing with a circumscribed subject area […] in which the authors of the documents share a common vocabulary and common habits of word usage” (ibid. 143). This statement implicates that the legal language is a part of the English language. One has to bear in mind that the field of law covers numerous subdivisions where experts use different terminology than in other legal businesses. For that reason, one has to view the language of the law as a unitary variety - a variety that unites several related types of its category in one.

3. Structural features of English legal language

Murray Edelman argues that the language of the law acts as “a tool of social control and as a means of preserving the interests of the privileged, wealthy and educated” (O’Barr 397). Lawyers use legalese to “set themselves apart from the mass of the population and to create group cohesion” (Tiersma 51). So to speak, it functions as a “bond of union” (ibid.).



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Ruhr-University of Bochum – Englisches Seminar
structural features legal language




Title: Structural Features of Legal Language