A question came up with a friend over dinner.

In societies that have no written language, are their laws considered to have legal effect? Does a law have to be written down in order to be considered a law and enforced?

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    What is a "legal law?" Jan 2, 2021 at 14:41
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    What reason would there be for a society, that has no written language, for them to require a law to be written to be legal? Jan 2, 2021 at 14:45
  • "Society" is an extremely flexible concept: we could say that my neighborhood constitute a "society", same with the people who work in my specialization. "Law" is usually about using force (directly or via agents) to make people do what you want them to do. In the old days, my neighbors might threaten me with knives if I didn't do what they want, but nowadays they leave that to the government, and the government relies on written laws (sometimes written in obscure places using a secret code).
    – user6726
    Jan 2, 2021 at 17:19
  • This is not an onion-based question, and should not be closed as such. Answers have cites specific cases where laws exist, backed by force, without being written. Jan 11, 2021 at 1:43

3 Answers 3


Different socities, including some that are not considered sovereign nations, create laws, that is enforceable rules of conduct, in different ways. Not all write them down. But they are all Law in that they are rulwa that societies can and will enforce mon their members.

I recommend reading Legal Systems Very Different from Ours by David D. Friedman (Professor of Law at Santa Clara University). There are free versions available on the web, and the final version is available from Amazon. It includes chapters on several systems where law is not written, including:

  • Pirate Law
  • Prisoners’ Law
  • Romani Law
  • Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne: The Plains Indians
  • Somali Law

Other chapters deal with systems where law may have been written, but its method of formation and operation are very different from the models usually discussed on this site. This include Roman law, Imperial Chinese law, Jewish law, Early Irish Law, and the law of saga-period Iceland.

  • I will read the book. My friend maintains all laws written or unwritten that is enforced by any society is a legal law and I not sure if saying legal is the correct term to use. If you break some unwritten law is it more correct to say your action was illegal or unlawful
    – huginn
    Jan 2, 2021 at 19:07
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    @huginn The meaning of "legal" in such cases is unclear. There is no outside authority to declare what is legal or illegal. Many such systems have characteristics similar to more established legal systems, such as norms based on the general good, consequences for various nacts, wide understandi9ng of what is prohibited, enforcement mechanisms, mechanisms to reduce abuse of power by those who have power. The uthor argues, for example, that caribean pirate crews had many of the same principles and methods as did the early us constitution, but 50-100 years earlier Jan 2, 2021 at 19:38
  • @huginn what can be said is that some actions violate an accepted code of conduct and have predictable penalties or consequences. Whether you call those actions "unlawful" or not does not change the consequences, and in several cases the people involved use the terminology of a legal system. Jan 2, 2021 at 19:40

Does a law have to be a written law in order to be a legal law?

No. Their laws are binding to them even if they are not in writing. To some extent that happens also in modern, bigger civilizations insofar as verbal contracts are binding and enforceable. Likewise, many common practices and customary laws are not in writing, yet they have can be dispositive in certain matters.


The definition of what constitutes a law is up to each sovereign nation. Most have a process these days where laws are voted in parliament, countersigned by somebody, and officially published before they take effect. Obviously a society without written language would have a different process.

Supposedly the Romans decided in 451 BC to write their laws down in the Twelve Tables. This was the demand of the common people, to make sure that judges would not act capriciously. So in the 300 years before that, the Roman laws were not published in writing. Or so the legend tells, it is hardly reliable history.

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