It seems so pervasive but, still confusing that we don't simply use French altogether for legal purposes, which I suppose was done at one time. But why were certain terms kept from French, while the rest of the language used reverted to English? It would make a bit of sense if there had been no terms available in English to refer to e.g. corporate bodies prior to the Normans' arrivals, but that doesn't seem terribly plausible.

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    You may wish to consider asking this over at EnglishSE, with either or both history and historical-change tags. If you do, it's best to check if it's on-topic first.
    – user35069
    Feb 16, 2023 at 13:19
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    The language spoken before the Normans arrived was Old English which is unintelligible to current English speakers: The first verse of Beowulf is "Hƿæt! ƿē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum, þēod-cyninga, þrym ġefrūnon, hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum," So the question is whether there was a term in Middle English to refer to corporate bodies that was not adopted from Norman-French. Feb 16, 2023 at 14:02
  • An interesting question, but I'm doubtful of its premise. How much French really persists in the English legal lexicon? I've certainly never done any kind of analsis, but I'd guess that French influences are actually less common in the English legal lexicon than in the English lexicon more broadly.
    – bdb484
    Feb 16, 2023 at 18:52
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    @bdb484 they are a little more noticeable in legal parlance, because legal parlance changed less than the common man's language. Parlance by the way? French
    – Trish
    Feb 16, 2023 at 19:27
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    English words derived from French have persisted from the 11th century to the present and are often about class. Animals in a field are called: cow, sheep, pig and animal parts on a plate are called: beef, mutton, pork. When William the Bastard conquered England he brought a lot of French rulers and French laws. Their words persist everywhere. Jan 3 at 17:44

3 Answers 3


Because the Normans spoke French.

The English Nobility didn't speak English till the 14th century at all. Why? Because the Norman Nobility spoke French till the whole debacle of the Hundred Years' War was halfway through.

William The Bastard left only very few nobles from before in power when he landed in 1066 and delivered a smackdown on the previous rulers. He established a whole new nobility and based on his orders (in French), this also formalized most of the Common law between 1066 and the 100 years war. It was the Norman nobility talking, and they had the text written in French and Latin, the civilized languages, not the gibberish Old English/Anglo-Saxon and Norse that was used by the peasants. Any English you and me would understand wouldn't even exist for another 200-300 years. Or to cite the Britannica:

The Normans spoke French and had developed a customary law in Normandy. They had no professional lawyers or judges; instead, literate clergymen acted as administrators. Some of the clergy were familiar with Roman law and the canon law of the Christian church, which was developed in the universities of the 12th century. Canon law was applied in the English church courts, but the revived Roman law was less influential in England than elsewhere, despite Norman dominance in government. This was due largely to the early sophistication of the Anglo-Norman system. Norman custom was not simply transplanted to England; upon its arrival, a new body of rules, based on local conditions, emerged.

English changed.

Would you understand Beowulf from about 700-1000 AD, which is Old English?

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Between this and modern English is a very heavily French-influenced English called "Middle English". This still is mostly illegible to a modern reader, but you find this from about 1066 to the 15th century. This example is from The Canterbury Tales:

Our Hoste gan to swere as he were wood, 'Harrow!' quod he, 'by nayles and by blood!. This was a fals cherl and a fals Iustyse! As shamful deeth as herte may devyse Come to thise Iuges and hir advocats! Algate this sely mayde is slayn, allas!

Only after the Hundred Years war ended, active steps were taken to remove French from the courts and language, which would result in modern English - yet the influence was extreme in the legal world then.

To come back to the example from Beowulf: I bet you do understand the Francis B Gummere (died 1919) translation into modern English, even if it feels a little archaic to us in 2023:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

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    More generally, main difference between Old English and Middle English, is that Middle English reflects the influence of Norman French on Old English. The transition from Middle English to modern English, in turn, reflects the discontinuation of continued Norman French linguistic influence.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 16, 2023 at 16:44

At the beginning of the Norman occupation, regardless of how the noble may have talked casually (in French), the language of law and government was Latin. It was not until the movement to centralized "common law" and the onset of French-language statutes around 1300 that French gained a place in the English legal scene. An example is the Pleading in English Act 1362, written in English and French, where it is decreed that pleadings (the stuff that happens in court) shall be in English because that is what the people understand, but records shall be in Latin. English became the official language of government during the reign of Henry V at the beginning of the 15th century. The point to be noticed here is that there has long been an accepted split between the language of the rulers and the language of the masses. Amongst the rulers, the two dominant languages were Latin and French, but French was "how people talked", and did not have the majestic status of Latin.

During this period, important legal doctrine were developed. Essential to any effective doctrine is a name. Legal doctrines were of course created by upper-class folks who spoke French, English and Latin, with a decline in knowledge of Latin and French over the years. Once a legal concept is named, it is difficult though not impossible to change the name, and thus "fee simple" survives to this day because no Germanic expression was developed to exactly identify this legal concept.

The practice of copying standard forms was a major contributor to the preservation of French in legal language. The underlying idea is that if you can write a legal document that works for a certain purpose in court, you would be well-advised to re-use the expressions of those documents the next time (befitting the status of "precedent" in English law – follow the law as previously identified). These documents would contain French expressions because "tort" and "guarantee", for instance, were well understood concepts, as identified in earlier legal writings (which might be in French – there are also plenty of Latin terms do preserved in legal language). These word were etymologically derived from French, but became part of English, just as many other terms (war, cabbage, pork, poultry) are etymologically from French but they are simple ordinary English words now.

There were no corporations in the modern legal sense in Anglo-Saxon England, so there was no Old English term for "articles of incorporation". The legal concept has to first exist, then we can worry about the name for it, and which language we use to refer to it.


As explained in the other answers, there are deep historical reasons for the extensive influence of French on modern English generally. However, the peculiar history of Law French in the 16th and 17th centuries is also an important reason for the continued prominence of French terms in English law.

The aristocracy in England stopped speaking French in the 14th century, and spoken French was abolished in the royal courts by the Pleading in English Act 1362. However, English lawyers continued to use French terms in writing, and by the 16th century, these lawyers generally spoke no French at all. Consequently, the law reports were filled with a strange and ungrammatical blend of French and English, which influenced the development of English law for centuries after French had disappeared as a spoken language.

The Wikipedia article gives the following example of Law French in a 1688 law report, which demonstrates that it's not quite French or English:

Richardson Chief Justice de Common Banc al assises de Salisbury in Summer 1631 fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony, que puis son condemnation ject un brickbat a le dit justice, que narrowly mist, et pur ceo immediately fuit indictment drawn per Noy envers le prisoner et son dexter manus ampute et fix al gibbet, sur que luy mesme immediatement change in presence de Court.

  • "Brickbat"! Wonderful! :) Jan 13 at 2:51

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