The Nature of Legal Language

The normative nature of legal language

Legal philosophers agree that legal language is a normative language. It is related to norm creation, norm production and norm expression (Jori 1994). This means that the language used from law or legal sources is largely prescriptive.

The normative language of law derives from the fact that law has the basic function in society of guiding human behaviour and regulating human relations. Law is distinguished from most other types of human institutions. Law embodies the ideals and standards people have and seek to realise in such concepts as equity, justice, rights, liberty, equal protection and the general welfare that enter the body of law (Jenkins 1980: 98). In other words, law has a normative existence that is embodied in the ideals and principles that people cherish, the purposes and aspirations they pursue, and the notions they hold (Jenkins 1980: 103). These constitute the existential goals of law. Thus, law exists as a set of prescriptions having the form of imperatives, defining and enforcing the arrangements, relationships, procedures and patterns of behaviour that are to be followed in a society (Jenkins 1980: 98).

Consequently, the language used in law to achieve its purpose is predominantly prescriptive, directive and imperative. Laws are written in language the function of which is not just to express or convey knowledge and information, but also to direct, influence or modify people’s behaviour, whether it be a legal enactment, judicial pronouncement or a contract. As is noted by Maley (1994: 11):

In all societies, law is formulated, interpreted and enforced . . . and the greater part of these different legal processes is realised primarily through language. Language is the medium, process and product in the various arenas of the law where legal texts, spoken or written, are generated in the service of regulating social behaviour.

In the words of Olivecrona (1962: 177, quoted by Jackson 1985: 315),

. . . the purpose of all legal enactments, judicial pronouncements, contracts, and other legal acts is to influence men’s behaviour and direct them in certain ways, thus, the legal language must be viewed primarily as a means to this end.

In short, the language of the law is a normative language. Its predominant function is to direct people’s behaviour in society. It authoritatively posits legal norms.

The performative nature of legal language

Closely related to the normative nature of law and legal language is the notion that language is performative. Law depends upon language, in particular the normative and performative nature of language. In speech act theory as first proposed by J.L. Austin (1962, 1979, see also Searle 1969, 1976, 1979), speech is not just words, as people normally associate it with, but also actions. Words are not only something we use to say things, we also use them to do things. The performative use of language is not exclusive to law, but law relies heavily on performative utterances. Legal effects and legal consequences are commonly obtained by merely uttering certain words, for instance, ‘You are guilty’, or ‘You are fined $1000’ as regularly pronounced in court. Language used in law can perform such acts as conferring rights, prescribing prohibition and granting permission. By merely uttering words, people accept public and private legal responsibilities, assume legal roles and qualities, transfer legal rights and impose or discharge obligations (Jori 1994: 2092). Thus, legal speech acts are said to be constitutive of their effects.

In relation to legal discourse, Danet (1980) classifies legal language use into different types of speech acts, based on Searle’s (1976) general classification of speech acts. Thus, legal speech acts are said to consist of the following categories (Danet 1980: 457–461):

(1) Representatives, which are utterances that commit the speaker to something being the case or assert the truth of a proposition, including testifying, swearing, asserting, claiming and stating.

(2) Commissives, which commit the speaker to do something in the future, such as in contracts, marriage ceremonies and wills.

(3) Expressives, which express the speakers’ psychological state about or attitude to a proposition, including apologising, excusing, condemning, deploring, forgiving and blaming.

(4) Declaratives, whose successful performance brings about a correspondence between their propositional content and reality, including marriage ceremonies, bills of sale, receipts, appointments, and nominations; and the legislative stipulation of rights and of definitions of concepts; lawyers’ objections, sentences, and appellate opinions, indictments, confessions, pleas of guilty/not guilty, and verdicts. There is a sub-category of representative declarations for certain institutional situations, e.g. a judge making factual claims, requiring claims to be issued with the force of declaration, and this would requires the speaker to have certain authority. This would cover marriage ceremony, bills of sale, appointment or nominations, legislative stipulation of rights and definition of concepts, indictments, confessions, pleas of guilty/not guilty, and verdicts.

(5) Directives, which are future-oriented speech acts, seeking to change the world, to get someone to do something, most prominent in legislation that imposes obligations.

Hence, the performative nature of language is indispensable to law in achieving its purpose of regulating human behaviour and society and setting out obligation, prohibition and permission.

Translating Law, Deborah Cao

Task 2. Draw the mind map of the text “The Nature of Legal Language”

The Nature of Legal Language - Mindmapping (составление ментальных карт или карт памяти) – это удобная и эффективная техника визуализации мышления при помощи графических схем. Автором методики является психолог Тони Бьюзен. Она отражает все стороны мыслительного процесса и позволяет выделить все главные аспекты проблемы, пробелы в понимании вопроса, ассоциативные связи.

Лист бумаги предпочтительно располагать горизонтально, что позволит расширять и модернизировать рисунок-конспект. В центре листа располагается образ всей проблемы/задачи/области знания. От него разноцветными линиями расходятся «ветки» - различные аспекты этого предмета. На каждой ветке располагаются по 3-4 слова – ассоциации с каждым аспектом, также связанные между собой ветками разных цветов.

Основные ветви далее разделяются на более тонкие. Все ветви подписываются ключевыми словами, заставляющими вспомнить то или иное понятие. Связи между отдельными идеями показываются стрелками.

Соблюдайте следующие рекомендации:

  • Используйте печатные буквы.
  • Размещайте ключевые слова над соответствующими линиями.
  • Следите за тем, чтобы длина линии примерно равнялась длине соответствующего ключевого слова.
  • Соединяйте линии с другими линиями и следите за тем, чтобы главные ветви карты соединялись с центральным образом.
  • Делайте главные линии плавными и более жирными.
  • Отграничивайте блоки важной информации с помощью линий.

Наши рекомендации