Legal Lexicography

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Legal Lexicography or Jurilexicography

Legal lexicography or jurilexicography is the most neglected aspect of the discipline of jurilinguistics, despite its great relevance for translators, academics and comparative lawyers.

This important work on the connections between legal vocabulary and legal culture is a welcome addition to the literature in the growing field of “jurilingistics” , a practical and theoretical discipline located at the confluence of law and language.

Legal Dictionaries

‘The study of law often starts with a dictionary. Better law dictionaries provide substantial insight into the relationship between law and language. Wardens of legal language, they contribute to improving the quality of the language of law; transcripts of legal history, they help lawyers to develop clearer ideas, refreshing and sharpening their legal knowledge; and last but not least, they assist laypersons in their efforts to better understanding law.

In General

From the Introduction to “Legal Lexicography. A Comparative Perspective” (Edited by Máirtín Mac Aodha):

To access the law one must first pierce the linguistic cocoon that envelops it. Words are the lawyer’s main tool, and Law is used, interpreted and manipulated through language. The nexus between language and Law sets it apart from other disciplines such as physics, mathematics or theology. Those disciplines have a common vocabulary that is shared throughout the scientific world. With Law, however, we are constantly reminded that language is firmly wedded to culture, and sublanguage to subculture. Legal terminology varies to a greater or lesser extent from country to country, leading some comparative lawyers to see in language one of the limitations of comparativism (Örücü 2004: 163-4).

Terms of art, ordinary words with uncommon meanings, obsolete words, formal words, Latin words and legal doublets congregate in legal texts, obscuring (sometimes deliberately) the meaning for practitioners, scholars and translators. it is not surprising, therefore, that legal lexicons have such ancient pedigree as a valuable aid. Indeed, the first such work, Gaius Aelius Gallus’ De verborum quae ad jus pertinent significatione dates back to the first century B.C.1 This tradition of legal lexicography was maintained in Byzance and in Eastern Europe. The first Western medieval law dictionaries were in Latin, and then dictionaries in the new national languages began to appear, contributing greatly to the development of those vernaculars. The gradual increase of headwords in legal lexicons contributed to the well-known sizable expansion of english vocabulary in that period.

Given the richness and longevity of the dictionary-making tradition, it is surprising that legal lexicography has received relatively little academic attention. Legal lexicography has been largely ignored in other works on legal language and legal linguistics. Very few monographs are devoted to this subject. Notable exceptions include Sandro Nielsen’s The Bilingual LSP Dictionary: Principles and Practice for Legal Language (1994), Reed and Groffier’s La lexicographie juridique (1990), and Marta Chroma’s Legal Translation and the Dictionary (2004). These lexicographical works, despite their utility, limit themselves to particular projects and specific languages. This neglect may in part be due to the somewhat opaque and contradictory nature of lexicographical works themselves. Lexicographers, although engaged in scientific work, publish dictionaries for users whose pursuits are practical. This results in a paradox which Zgusta describes in these terms:

“The basis of a sound and efficient lexicographic work is a good theory, but on the other hand, the dictionary is written for a user who will not primarily be seeking too much of lexicographic theory nor a wide array of lexicographic problems presented in it; the user will be interested in finding quite different information, viz. indications concerning the facts of the respective language itself. in other words, the user of a dictionary does not wish, at least usually, to have the purely lexicographic problems presented but to have them solved (1971: 17).”

For this reason the prefaces of legal dictionaries often ignore or are silent on their underlying principles. even dictionary reviews are of limited value in this respect for as hartmann (1996: 241) notes, dictionary criticism is an activity ‘which has been beset by personal prejudice rather than noted for the application of objective criteria’. one is also reminded that ‘a living body of law is not a collection of doctrine, rules, terms and phrases. it is not a dictionary, but a culture and it has to be apprehended as such’ (Friedmann 1990: 47). it is however this very living organism that law dictionaries must seek to capture between their covers (real or virtual). This task, already daunting for the editor of a monolingual dictionary, becomes all the more elusive in the case of bilingual dictionaries due to the system-bound nature of legal terminology as rené David and John Brierley expertly outline in their comparative exegesis on French and english Law:

“Since there is no identity between such different legal ideas and concepts (although there may be some overlapping in functions they perform in each system), english legal terms cannot be translated effectively into French or some other Latin language. if a translation must be made, whatever the price, the meaning is most often completely distorted; the difficulty is usually no less even when it appears to be possible: the contract of english law is no more the equivalent of the contrat of French law than english equity is that of équité; administrative law does not mean droit administratif, nor can civil law be properly rendered as droit civil and common law does not mean droit commun (David 1985: 334-5).”

This inherent difficulty is further amplified in the case of multilingual dictionaries. The failure of legal dictionaries to overcome the problems posed by culturebound legal terminology is, however, not just an obstacle to communication between lawyers but also poses a threat to legal certainty and legal clarity. in this context it is particularly interesting to note recent efforts to promote plain language at european level where the Union has embraced better and clearer legislation as one of its priorities. See, for example, the european commission’s clearwriting campaign where clear official language is seen as a citizen’s right and as a human right (‘Trying to change the institutional culture: The european commission’s clear writing campaign’, clarity, Number 69, January 2013, 4-5).

Justice holmes, referring to the common Law, once wrote: ‘in order to know what it is, we must know what it has been, and what it tends to become. We must alternately consult history and existing theories of legislation. But the most difficult labor will be to understand the combination of the two into new products at every stage’. a similarly inspired approach is adopted here – history is consulted, existing theories of legal lexicography are examined and their products (dictionaries) dissected. Drawing on the sound universal logic, our starting point are matters historical and theoretical from which we progress to more practical concerns. Jurilexicography, the interdiciplinary field par excellence, is found at the confluence of law and language. Jurilexicograpy is a branch of jurilinguistics, which term originated in Canada and denotes the study of the relationship between language and law. See gémar (1982), gémar and Kasirer (2005), Mac aodha (2008: 679) and preite (2013).

ISO Standards

The use of ISO standards and the TBX framework (for the exchange of terminological data) may be usefull in the creation of a termbase of the core legal vocabulary. ISO 1087 defines terminology as a ‘set of designations belonging to one special language’ and designations as ‘representations of a concept by the sign which denotes it’. The author shows how this can be applied to legal language. he also shows how iSo 12620 (the international standard for the data categories used in termbases), iSo 12616 (terminology aimed at translation) and iSo 704 (which sets out the principles governing the formulation of designations and the formulation of definitions) can provide a structure for entries: the lexical level followed by the translation level and concluding with the level of language. The merits of the ISO approach is that may provide uniformity of form while preserving complete freedom as to the contents of the terminological record.


Further Reading

Legal Lexicography. A Comparative Perspective. Edited by Máirtín Mac Aodha.
Chroma, Marta (2004) Legal Translation and the Dictionary. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag. David, rené (1985) Major Legal Systems in the World Today: An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Law (translated and adapted by John e.c. Brierley), 3rd ed., London: Stevens. Friedman, Lawrence (1990) in clark, David S (ed), Comparative and Private International Law: Essays in Honor of John Henry Merryman on his Seventieth Birthday. Berlin: Duncker & humblot. gak, Vladimir ‘La langue et le discours dans un dictionnaire bilingue’, Langages, 19, 1970, pp. 103-15. gémar, J.-c. (dir.). (1982) Langage du droit et traduction – Essais de jurilinguistique. Montréal: Linguatech. gémar, Jean-claude and Nicholas Kasirer (eds) (2005). Jurilinguistique: entre langues et droits. Montréal, Thémis, and Brusseld, Bruylant. Groffier, Ethel and David Reed (1990), La lexicographie juridique: principes et méthodes. cowansville, Les Éditions yvon Blais inc. hartmann, r.K.K. (1996) ‘Lexicography’, in r.r.K. hartmann (ed.) Solving Language Problems. exeter: University of exeter press. hornby, S. (1990) ‘Dynamics in meaning as a problem for bilingual lexicography’, in Tomaszczzyk. J. and Lewandowska-Tomaszczzyk (eds) Meaning and Lexicography. amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 209-26. Mac aodha, Mairtin, review of J.-c. gémar and N. Kasirer (dir.) (2005) ‘Jurilinguistique: entre langues et droits. Jurilinguistics: Between Law and Language’, Montréal, Thémis/Bruylant, Meta, vol. 53, no. 3, 2008, pp. 679-84. Mattila, heikki (2012) Jurilinguistique comparée: Langage du droit, latin et langues modernes. Éditions yvon Blais, Montréal. Nielsen, Sandro (1994) The Bilingual LSP Dictionary. Principles and Practice for Legal Language. Tübingen: gunter Narr Verlag. Örücü, esin (2004) The Enigma of Comparative Law. Variations on a Theme for the Twenty-first Century. Leiden; Boston Martinus Nijhoff publishers. preite, c. ‘Des années 1970 au nouveau millénaire: essor de la jurilinguistique ou linguistique juridique’, Parallèles, numéro 25, 2013, pp. 43-50. Zgusta, Ladislav (1971) Manual of Lexicography. praha: academia, The hague: Mouton.

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