Latin: The Common Legal Language of Europe?

Author:Merike Ristikivi
Position:Assistant to Chair of Classical Philology, University of Tartu

The position of Latin in the development of law - English - a new lingua franca? - Tammelo: creation of a methodical artificial language - The position of Latin in the modern legal literature - Polysemy - Synonymy - Conclusion


Merike Ristikivi

Assistant to Chair of Classical Philology, University of Tartu

Latin: The Common Legal Language of Europe?

In the current debate about European legal integration, it is frequently asserted that for integration of the national systems to succeed, it is necessary to develop a common legal language for Europe. The diversity of legal languages is an obstacle to integration, and therefore the plurality must be eliminated1. This raises the issue of whether Europe can possibly develop a common legal language when it does not even have a common general language.

If we consider the relationship between language and law, we find the common opinion that the language of law differs from most other sub-languages in one important respect: while the language of natural science in particular is a universal language used by scientists across different societal and cultural boundaries2, legal language is culture-bound and intertwined with one particular society and its legal system.

The position of Latin in the development of law

In past centuries, Latin played the role of a common legal language, which was applied across the boundaries of local law. In a way, Latin can be called the common mother tongue of Western European culture, which has influenced the development of all major European languages. Its influence on the development of other languages began with the conquests by the Roman forces, which left their imprint first and foremost on the vocabulary and the syntactic rules of literary language. The Latin language was carried by Roman soldiers, administrators, settlers, and traders to the various parts of their growing empire. Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Dalmatia, and the southern and eastern coasts of Spain had been brought under Roman sway by the end of the third century BC, and the expansion continued until with Trajan's conquest of Dacia the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent, including Britain in the far west and the Hellenistic kingdoms in the east, with the northern frontier on the Rhine and the Danube. The consequence was that a common civilisation was developed that varied little from country to country3. Latin, the language of the new ruling power, was from this point on the language of government and administration, legislation and the judiciary, trade and army operations.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, Rome lost its political independence, but the significance of Latin, on the contrary, did not lessen. During the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance and Reformation and beyond, Latin was used in particular as the language of the church, education, and scientific realms. Communication between states and nations was conducted in Latin, as was the correspondence of intellectuals and scholars.

The place of Latin in the history of the development of the law in Western civilisation is also notable. The importance of Latin as a legal language may be traced back to 450-451 BC, when the Twelve Tables were created, forming the basis of the subsequent development of Roman law4. All major sources of our knowledge of Roman law are written in Latin - e.g., the collection of Roman Emperor Justinian known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis. This codification had a direct impact on the development of the legal systems of Europe, and it has even been considered5 to be the most influential law book ever written. In addition, Latin was the language of the most prominent works on jurisprudence and legal philosophy, including famous tractates of Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, and many others.

English - a new lingua franca?

Europe today does not have such a legal lingua franca. It follows that lawyers belonging to different legal systems have no shared language. Legal languages are dependent on the legal systems and cultures to which they belong. Therefore, communication between European lawyers is often hindered by language barriers and is typically characterised by misunderstandings caused by differences in legal experience.

For instance, when a French lawyer refers to contrat, this concept is radically different from the notion of contract in the mind of a common-law lawyer. Superficially, the concepts are the same, but, at the deep level of legal thinking, they form opposite approaches to contract formation6.

Lawyers from differing speech communities generally use English, but a good command of English is no guarantee of successful legal communication. On the contrary, English is probably the most inadequate...

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