Tuesday, March 06, 2007

 

Law French

Considerable coverage was given recently to efforts by the Committee for the Language of European Law to promote French as the primary language of EU law. Here, for example.

On the one hand, it's a daft campaign and the proposal itself a non-starter. Purely in the interests of credibility, the committee should surely have chosen as its frontman some one other than Maurice Druon, described as the secretary of the Académie Francaise. It is hard to imagine that the holder of that office could be more concerned by the interests of legal certainty than the fortunes of the French language.

In other ways, though, the proposal has a certain pedigree. French is already, by convention, the internal working language of the European Court of Justice. The judges there conduct their deliberations in French (preferring to dispense with interpreters for some unthinkable reason) and French is the only language - other than the language of the particular case - in which all documents are made available.

French was also the sole authentic language of the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU. There is some evidence that it could have acquired the same status in the Treaty of Rome were it not for opposition from the Belgians, who had domestic linguistic issues to consider.

And going further back in time, the idea of French as the language of the law may - paradoxically - owe its origins to an English rather than a French tradition.

French clung on in the English courts right into the eighteenth century - long after it had been supplanted by English in other walks of life. Roger North, who lived until 1734, was of the opinion that
the Law is scarcely expressible properly in English

There is even an argument that it was thanks to this use of French that the distinctive character of the Common Law was preserved in the face of continental influences:
When the history of English law is contrasted with the history of its next of kin, the existence of law French is too often forgotten. It is forgotten that during the later middle age English lawyers enjoyed the inestimable advantage of being able to make a technical language. And a highly technical language they made.... Let us dwell for a moment on an important consequence. We have known it put by a foreigner as a paradox that in the critical sixteenth century the national system of jurisprudence which showed the stoutest nationalism was a system that was hardly expressible in the national language. But is there a paradox here? English law was tough and impervious to foreign influence because it was highly technical, and it was highly technical because English lawyers had been able to make a vocabulary, to define their concepts, to think sharply as the man of science thinks. It would not be a popular doctrine that the Englishry of English law was secured by la lange francais qest trope desconue; but does it not seem likely that if English law had been more homely, more volksthümlich, Romanism would have swept the board in England as it swept the board in Germany?

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