Language Model Syntax in Legal Information Retrieval

The following is a basic concept of Language Model Syntax in relation to information retrieval. In addition to this, Language Model Syntax may be applied to legal texts, including case law, legislation and scholarly works. Throughout the history of automatic indexing based on term weighting and relevance prediction, two major theoretical models have emerged: the vector-space model and the probabilistic model. Recently, a language model for Information Retrieval has been proposed, as a modification or simplification of the probabilistic model. The differences are subtle. Instead of attempting to predict the probability of document relevance for an Information Retrieval query statement, the language model is used to predict probable query search terms. Retrieval is effected when predicted (highly probably) search terms match the actual search terms of users. Like all basic models, language model probabilities are based, for the most part, on term frequencies within documents and the inverse document frequency of terms across collections or Information Retrieval databases (Ponte & Croft 1998).

Natural Language Syntax in Legal Information Retrieval

The following is a basic concept of Natural Language Syntax in relation to information retrieval. In addition to this, Natural Language Syntax may be applied to legal texts, including case law, legislation and scholarly works. Natural language syntax is syntax for displayed indexes that is applied to statements or segments of text that already exist (i.e., in natural language). Most commonly, it is applied to titles of documents. The most common natural language syntaxes are KWIC, KWAC, and KWOC, which are described in the entry for keyword indexing. Permuted syntax can also be used on natural language terms, as well as assigned terms. Ad hoc string syntax, such as NEPHIS, can also be applied to natural language text or titles. (Many non-displayed indexes consist of natural language terms, but the term natural language syntax usually refers to syntax used to create displayed indexes.)

Sgml (Standard General Markup Language) in Legal Information Retrieval

The following is a basic concept of Sgml (Standard General Markup Language) in relation to information retrieval. In addition to this, Sgml (Standard General Markup Language) may be applied to legal texts, including case law, legislation and scholarly works. See text encoding schemas.

Xml (Extensible Markup Language) in Legal Information Retrieval

The following is a basic concept of Xml (Extensible Markup Language) in relation to information retrieval. In addition to this, Xml (Extensible Markup Language) may be applied to legal texts, including case law, legislation and scholarly works. See text encoding schemas.

Natural language in Law Libraries

The follow definition of Natural language is of use in law library research: everyday language; in database searching, a natural language search allows the user to type words in the same way that a person normally speaks them. Compare with controlled vocabulary.

The Language Question

Lassa Oppenheim, in the book entitled The Future of International Law, about The Language Question, wrote in 1921: There is, to begin with, the question of language. Seeing that it is impossible to employ all languages in the enactment of rules of international law, an agreement must be made for adopting some one language for these laws, in the same way that French is used at the present time. But the difficulty thence arising is not insuperable, and is hardly greater than that which is encountered in drafting a treaty between peoples whose speech belongs to different families. It must, however, be a rigid rule that in every case of doubt the text of the law in its original language–not that of a translation into the languages of other countries–is authoritative.

Language, Insane, Good Faith

From the book The Clergyman’s Hand-book of Law, about Language, Insane, Good Faith (1): Unless the language is used by the bishop in the line of his duty, a statement that a priest is irresponsible and insane, that he was removed from his position of priest for good reason, and that he has been guilty of ecclesiastical disobedience, is slanderous per se. To make a communication between a bishop and priest privileged it must have been spoken in good faith and in belief that the speaking of it came within the discharge of the bishop’s duty.

Early History of the English legal language

(The Norman Conquest) One indelible mark it has stamped for ever on the whole body of our law. It would be hardly too much to say that at the present day almost all our words that have a definite legal import are in a certain sense French words. The German jurist is able to expound the doctrines of Roman law in genuinely German words. On many a theme an English man of letters may, by way of exploit, write a paragraph or a page and use no word that is not in every sense a genuinely English word; but an English or American lawyer who attempted this puritanical feat would find himself doomed to silence. It is true, and it is worthy of remark, that within the sphere of public law we have some old terms which have come down to us from unconquered England.

Earl was not displaced by count, sheriff was not displaced by viscount; our king, our queen, our lords, our knights of the shire are English; our aldermen are English if our mayors are French; but our parliament and its statutes, our privy council and its ordinances, our peers, our barons, the commons of the realm, the sovereign, the state, the nation, the people are French; our citizens are French and our burgesses more French than English. So too a few of the common transactions of daily life can be described by English verbs.

A man may give, sell, buy, let, hire, borrow, bequeath, make a deed, a will, a bond, and even be guilty of manslaughter or of theft, and all this in English. But this is a small matter. We will say nothing of the terms in which our land law is expressed, estate, tenement, manor, mortgage, lease and the like, for though we have English freeholds and half-English copyholds, this is a region in which we should naturally look for many foreign terms. But let us look elsewhere and observe how widely and deeply the French influence has worked. Contract, agreement, covenant, obligation, debt, condition, bill, note, master, servant, partner, guarantee, tort, trespass, assault, battery, slander, damage, crime, treason, felony, misdemeanour, arson, robbery, burglary, larceny, property, possession, pledge, lien, payment, money, grant, purchase, devise, descent, heir, easement, marriage, guardian, infant, ward, all are French. We enter a court of justice: court, justices, judges, jurors, counsel, attorneys, clerks, parties, plaintiff, defendant, action, suit, claim, demand, indictment, count, declaration, pleadings, evidence, verdict, conviction, judgment, sentence, appeal, reprieve, pardon, execution, every one and every thing, save the witnesses, writs and oaths, have French names. In the province of justice and police with its fines, its gaols and its prisons, its constables, its arrests, we must, now that outlawry is a thing of the past, go as far as the gallows if we would find an English institution. Right and wrong we have kept, and, though we have received tort, we have rejected droit: but even law probably owes its salvation to its remote cousin the French lei.

Struggle between Latin, French and English

But all this is the outcome of a gradual process; we cannot say that it is the necessary result of the conquest of England by French-speaking men. Indeed for some time after the conquest the English language seems to have a fair chance of holding its own in legal affairs.

Latin as a legal language

During the century that follows, Latin keeps its preeminence, and when, under Henry II. and his sons, the time comes for the regular enrolment of all the king’s acts and of all the judgments of his court, Latin becomes the language of our voluminous official and judicial records. From this position it is not dislodged until the year 1731, when it gives place to English.

Struggle between French and English

But, though throughout the middle ages some Latin could be written by most men who could write at all, and the lord of a manor would still have his accounts as well as his court rolls made up in Latin, still only the learned could speak Latin readily, and it could not become the language of oral pleading or of debate.

Victory of French

If we must choose one moment of time as fatal, we ought to choose 1166 rather than 1066, the year of the assize of novel disseisin rather than the year of the battle of Hastings. Then it was that the decree went forth which gave to every man dispossessed of his freehold a remedy to be sought in a royal court, a French-speaking court. Thenceforward the ultimate triumph of French law terms was secure. In all legal matters the French element, the royal element, was the modern, the enlightened, the improving element.

The English stock of words is stricken with barrenness, the French stock can grow. The things of the law which have English names are things that are obsolete or obsolescent, sake and soke, wer and wite: —already men hardly know what these words mean. It is difficult[63] for us to believe that in the local courts, the suitors, who were for the more part peasants, pleaded their causes and rendered their judgments in French; still from the thirteenth century we get books of precedents for pleadings in manorial courts which are written in French, while we look in vain for any similar books written in English. We may suspect that if the villagers themselves did not use French when they assailed each other in the village courts, their pleaders used it for them, and before the end of the thirteenth century the professional pleader might already be found practising before a petty tribunal and speaking the language of Westminster Hall. Then in 1362 a statute, itself written in French, declared that as the French tongue was but little understood, all pleas should be “pleaded, shown, defended, answered, debated and judged” in the English tongue.10 But this came too late.

It could not break the Westminster lawyers of their settled habit of thinking about law and writing about law in French, and when slowly French gave way before English even as the language of law reports and legal text-books, the English to which it yielded was an English in which every cardinal word was of French origin. How far this process had gone at the end of the thirteenth century we may learn from Robert of Gloucester’s historical poem. He sets himself to translate into English verse the Constitutions of Clarendon, and in so doing he uses the terms which we now write as custom, grant, lay fee, service, pleading, assize, judgment, traitor, chattels, felon, patron, advowson, court, plea, purchase, amendment, hold in chief, bailiff, homage, confirm, appeal, debt.11 Down to the end of the middle ages a few Old English terms perdured which, at least as technical terms, we have since lost: English “domes-men” might still “deem dooms in a moot hall”; but the number of such terms was small and the blight of archaism was on them.

French documents

Meanwhile men had begun to write French and to write it for legal purposes. Legal instruments in French come to us but very rarely, if at all, from the twelfth century;13 they become commoner in the thirteenth and yet commoner in the fourteenth, but on the whole Latin holds its own in this region until it slowly yields to English, and the instruments that are written in French seldom belong to what we may call the most formal classes; they are wills rather than deeds, agreements rather than charters of feoffment, writs under the privy seal, not writs under the great seal.

Language of Statute law

From the royal chancery Latin is not to be driven. The example set by the Conqueror when he issued laws in English as well as in Latin was not followed; Latin is the language for laws and ordinances until the middle of the thirteenth century. Then for one brief moment the two vulgar tongues appear on an equality; in 1258 Henry III. declared both in French and in English his acceptance of the provisions which were forced upon him in the parliament at Oxford.14 But while this English proclamation long remains unique, French forces its way to the front. It wrestles with Latin for the possession of the statute roll and the parliament rolls. By the end of Edward II.’s reign it has fairly won the statutes roll,15 and is fast gaining a mastery over the parliament rolls. For about two centuries, from the reign of Edward I. to the reign of Richard III., it is the usual language of the enacted law. Late in the fourteenth century English begins to make an insidious attack. Petitions to parliament are sometimes presented in English, and the English petition is sometimes put upon the roll without being translated. However, the middle ages are just at an end before the records of the En glish legislature are written mainly in English, and to this day, as all know, what a lawyer must regard as the most solemn of all our formulas is French— La reine le veult.16

French law-books

Again, in the thirteenth century French slowly supplanted Latin as the literary language of the law. It is very possible that the learned Bracton thought about law in Latin; he wrote in Latin, and the matter that he was using, whether he took it from the Summa Azonis or from the plea rolls of the king’s court, was written in Latin. But the need for French text-books was already felt, and before the end of the century this need was being met by the book that we call Britton, by other tracts, and by those reports of decided cases which we know as the Year Books. Thenceforward French reigns supreme over such legal literature as there is. We must wait for the last half of the fifteenth century if we would see English law written about in the English tongue, for the sixteenth if we would read a technical law-book that was written in English.

Language and law

This digression, which has taken us far away from the days of the Norman Conquest, may be pardoned. Among the most momentous and permanent effects of that great event was its effect on the [95] language of English lawyers, for language is no mere instrument which we can control at will; it controls us. It is not a small thing that a law-book produced in the England of the thirteenth century will look very like some statement of a French coutume and utterly unlike the Sachsen-spiegel, nor is it a small thing that in much later days such foreign influences as will touch our English law will always be much rather French than German. But we have introduced in this place what must have been said either here or elsewhere about our legal language, because we may learn from it that a concurrence of many causes was requisite to produce some of those[66] effects which are usually ascribed to the simple fact that the Normans conquered England.

Source: Sir Frederick Pollock, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (1895)

Reading the Law (Language, Power and Ideology)

Contents of Reading the Law (Language, Power and Ideology)

Contents of this subject matter include:

  • Rhetoric, linguistics and discourse analysis
  • Legal interpretation and legal rhetoric
  • Language and the criminal justice system
  • The language of statutes; plain legal language
  • Language in the courtroom; oratory skills
  • Reading gender in the law
  • Linguistic issues faced by Indigenous People
  • Legal translation and interpreters
  • Linguistic issues in refugee determinations
  • Language crimes, the offensive and the obscene
  • Forensic linguistics

Related Fields

Related topics include:


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Legal English

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Language Policy

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Language Law

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See Also

  • Language
  • Legal English
  • Language Policy
  • Language Law


Notes and References

  1. Charles M. Scanlan, The Clergyman’s Hand-book of Law. The Law of Church and Grave (1909), Benziger Brothers, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago

See Also

  • Religion
  • Church

Hierarchical Display of Language

Science > Humanities > Social sciences > Linguistics
Employment And Working Conditions > Employment > Vocational training > Language skills


Concept of Language

See the dictionary definition of Language.

Characteristics of Language

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Translation of Language

Thesaurus of Language

Science > Humanities > Social sciences > Linguistics > Language
Employment And Working Conditions > Employment > Vocational training > Language skills > Language

See also

  • Central American organisation
  • Central American organization
  • Latin American intergovernmental organisation
  • Latin American intergovernmental organization
  • Latin American organization
  • Latin American regional organisation
  • Latin American regional organization
  • Disappearing language
  • Threatened language
  • Endangered language


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