Law French, the language of the courts

Law French was a mixture of Norman French as spoken in England for a few hundred years after the Conquest, Latin, and English. It was generally pronounced using English phonology. Usher describes this jargon as “a crass compound, void of form, structure, regularity, or grammar, — the result of abysmal ignorance of all three languages.”

I think it qualifies as a pidgin: “a language containing lexical and other features from two or more languages, characteristically with simplified grammar and a smaller vocabulary than the languages from which it is derived, used for communication between people not having a common language.” (OED.) Pidgins aren’t really languages, since they lack grammars, in the linguistic sense of a complexly structured system. They’re not systems, they’re just rough-and-ready means of communicating across linguistic boundaries.

Law French began as the language of the ruling class, who naturally dominated the courts and the legal profession. Latin was the language of literacy in those days, so it naturally supplied many terms and connectives. As the English aristocracy forgot how to speak French, English inevitably moved into the courts. The result is not technically a pidgin, but it is pidgin-esque.

Francis Bacon was reared in the center of this odd linguistic nexus. He was perfectly fluent in Latin and French and exceptionally articulate in English as well. When Law French entered his fertile brain, it was creolized — turned into a language with a consistent system of grammar. Creoles are what happen when children grow up in a pidgin-speaking community.

Usher found a manuscript in Bacon’s handwriting from 1586-87, which would make it the earliest known piece of Bacon’s writing. It is entirely in Law French and treats of a thorny aspect of the law having to do with  lands and goods to which no one can claim title. (They belong to the crown.) The important part of this for us is that Bacon manages to write elegantly even in that barbarous jargon. Usher observes that “he regards the singular and plural of the subject and verb as related to one another; he is exact in his use of connectives, observes the common French genders, and is sparing of English words, except where they have been incorporated into the Law-French and possessed a technical meaning.”

That’s our Francis! What a beautiful brain!

Yes, it’s nuts

Hazelnuts_wikicomThis is from a Reading given at Gray’s Inn during the Lent Vacation in 1452 (30 Henry VI.) I give you the original Law French followed by Mr. Thorne’s translation. You should read it aloud in a rich BBC English accent, although my Texas accent is probably closer to the West Country dialect of the sixteenth century.

De nucibus et glande et aliis fructibus colligendis. A ma entent, si home graunt per son fait a moy en fee xij busshesellis de nuces hors de un graunt bois, en ceo cas sur tiell graunt le grauntor serra lie per le ley de colleier lez nucez, issint que ieo suwe content de mez nucez a mon terme de paiement, com lou home graunt a moy xx s. de rent hors de son maner, il est tenuz de veier que suwe contente a son perill.

[Of collecting nuts and acorns and other fruits.] As I understand it, if a man grants to me in fee by deed 12 bushels of nuts out of a great wood, in that case, upon such grant, the grantor shall be bound by law to gather the nuts, so that I be satisfied at my term of payment, as where a man grants me 20s. of rent out of his manor he is bound at his peril to see that I am content.

This, for hours in a crowded hall, standing, with no water bottle and no granola bars. And don’t forget you’ll be expected to chat intelligently about it afterwards.

References

Thorne, Samuel E. 1954. Readings and Moots at the Inns of Court in the Fifteenth Century. Volume I. London: Bernard Quaritch. Publications of the Selden Society. pp2-3.

Usher, Roland G. 1919. “Francis Bacon’s Knowledge of Law-French,” Modern Language Notes, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan., 1919), pp. 28-32.

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