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The idea of legalese needs little introduction. An archaic professional jargon that has developed in the English-speaking world over hundreds of years, it has been largely preserved and sustained by lawyers both due to inertia and a desire to speak very specifically about legal concepts.

My question is, does the concept of legalese exist in the legal practices of non-English speaking legal systems? For example, are contracts in China written using archaic Confucian phraseology and obsolete characters that non-lawyers largely do not understand or study in school? Do Israeli lawyers file court pleadings written in quasi-Biblical Hebrew that sounds almost nothing like what you hear on the street in Tel Aviv? Do native Hungarian speakers who want to become lawyers in Hungary have to take coursework in Legal Hungarian in order to understand what other lawyers are talking about or is that not a thing there?

If you have experience in a non-English speaking legal system, your input is welcomed! Answers from the perspective of any non-English speaking system are welcome. For example, something like "In the legal system of Xonia we lawyers pretty much just write in formal written Xonian, it's essentially identical to what you see in the local newspaper except for about a dozen legal words that students typically learn in high school anyway but don't generally use outside of legal contexts, but in the Yish Kingdom, we have to learn the ten Legal Tenses of Yishish, the Contractual and Conspiratorial Moods, the Participle of Agency, the Adverbial Forms and Voices of General and Specific Civil Liability, and from two to five thousand legal Yishish words that almost no one else knows, even those who have obtained an advanced university education in Yishish." could be a great answer.

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    – Dale M
    Sep 6, 2023 at 12:12

13 Answers 13

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Germany definitely has a legal jargon that is sufficiently distinct from standard German that a foreigner with decent skill in standard German will have trouble understanding what a legal text actually means. It frequently uses uncommon grammatical structures and vocabulary. It also can go so far that some common expressions like 'usually' or 'most of the time' have a legal meaning that is somewhat different than what these expression would mean in standard written German.

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    Some of the stuff is even difficult to understand for native speakers; the main issue seems to be that legal language strives for an unnatural degree of precision (with the somewhat ironic side effect of making things unintelligible for those w/o some legal training). Sep 4, 2023 at 7:19
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    "Beamtendeutsch" is imho the right word for this, translating roughly to "public servant's German".
    – Hobbamok
    Sep 4, 2023 at 8:39
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    @Hobbamok I don't think Beamtendeutsch (or Behördendeutsch) is quite the same as legalese.
    – gerrit
    Sep 4, 2023 at 8:41
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    @phoog In German 'gewöhnlich' und 'in der Regel'. I'm trying to recall the exact example, but essentially both of these were interpreted to mean 'unless there is some reason to do otherwise' even in cases where such a reason to do otherwise exists in practice in virtually all cases. So in the real world the 'in der Regel' is actually the exception.
    – quarague
    Sep 4, 2023 at 9:27
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    @Hobbamok Same thing goes in Dutch. "ambtenarenspraak" (== "Civil Servant Speak") is pretty unreadable for the average person. The legal version of this even has its own noun "Juridisch" (rarely used though) , which literally translates to "legalese".
    – Tonny
    Sep 4, 2023 at 10:01
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In , legal texts are written in "everyday" French, although the legal vocabulary may not be known to non-specialists.

However, for some reason (tradition, I guess), court judgements are to be written in ONE sentence, even if it is several pages-long (that is changing: in particular administrative law judgements no longer follow that since 2019).

Get ready for hundreds or thousands of commas (and semi-colons) with as many subordinates propositions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_grammar#Cleft_sentences) when reading them.

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    You can also see this, or remnants of it, in the drafting of some English-language laws, treaties and resolutions. I believe the UN still follows this style, at least in English.
    – phoog
    Sep 4, 2023 at 10:05
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    I wonder if there's a connection to the way that certain very traditional formal documents in the UK (like letters patent) are written without punctuation.
    – dbmag9
    Sep 4, 2023 at 13:27
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    What a great alternative to Proust prose at school, where pupils are expected to chop down a phrase and explain its grammatical structure (a nightmare for everyone)
    – WoJ
    Sep 4, 2023 at 13:38
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    @WoJ that sounds like a spoken form of diagramming sentences?
    – Someone
    Sep 4, 2023 at 17:54
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    This is what forced the Grammar Nazis to invade. Sep 6, 2023 at 0:37
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The Islamic legal system, Shari`ah, is similar to common law in having special legal terms. For instance, a legal duty may be farīḍah, mustaḥabb, mubāḥ, makrūh or ḥarām. Legal authorities include Qur'ān, Ḥadīth, Ijmā` and Qiyās, which are relevant to fiqh. Marriages can be nikāḥ, nikāḥ misyar, or zawāj al-mutʻah. Setting aside the fact that these are Arabic words, they are special technical terms, just as "consideration", "scienter" and "tort" are special technical terms in common law.

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    I would perhaps distinguish terms such as "consideration" that have a specific application in certain legal contexts from those such as "tort" that aren't used in colloquial English and can be replaced with a colloquial English term without loss of meaning (as has been done in England and Wales). For someone like me who doesn't speak Arabic it's impossible to know whether the five words for "duty" are truly attributable to legal jargon or are simply an example of one language having several words for related concepts, such as duty, obligation, responsibility, requirement, and mandate.
    – phoog
    Sep 4, 2023 at 9:27
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    @phoog: fwiw the five words translate to "obligatory", "desirable", "permissible", "hateful", "forbidden".
    – psmears
    Sep 4, 2023 at 10:02
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    @psmears yes. Divorce ("talaq") is one of those things that is makruh. One who gets divorced is not damned or subject to any specfic punishment, but there is a reward for trying harder to get your marriage to work rather than just giving up and divorcing. Sep 4, 2023 at 14:45
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A single data point, Bulgarian: Like in English, but more diverse.

In addition to the normal Bulgarian lexical content and grammar, legal text also contain:

  • Archaic Bulgarian words in places where a modern word would be a perfect fit (my favorite "досежно" instead of "относно" for "relevant")
  • Some Bulgarian "trap" words having substantially different from the ordinary meaning ("поръчител" - in legal context, it is someone accepting liability, in ordinary language it is someone ordering something - e.g. goods or services)
  • The normal Latin words and phrases just like in English legalese, some of them traditionally spelled in Cyrillic ("фидуциарно", "суперфикция", "ab initio").
  • Rare loan legal terms from German and French (this is where Bulgarian legal system emerged from back at the end of 19th century)
  • Even more rare terms of obvious Russian origin

A person of average literacy needs some "getting used to" and an occasional web/dictionary search in order to fully understand an ordinary legal text.

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    Could you elaborate these points for people like me with some exposure to other Slavic languages and transliterate the Cyrillic for those who can't read it? What modern word would one use for досежно? What are the ordinary and specialized meanings of поръчител? Can you add some examples of borrowings from German, French, and Russian?
    – phoog
    Sep 4, 2023 at 9:31
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    @phoog I'll try later
    – fraxinus
    Sep 4, 2023 at 9:47
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Sweden has its own version of it, called myndighetssvenska (approx. "authority Swedish"), but in recent years, the government has been actively encouraging more ordinary Swedish in regulatory documents. There is an official manual, dramatically called Svarta Listan ("The Black List"), of myndighetssvenska terms to avoid and examples of how to replace them with ordinary Swedish. You can find it here (in Swedish, of course).

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Speaking for all countries/languages: yes. What you call "legalese" is just the - as professionals in Computer Science would call it - domain-specific language of law professionals. Many, probably all, non-trivial professional domains have words that either don't exist in the rest of the language, or do exist, but have a meaning unknown to the general public. Think about doctors, bureaucrats, engineers, mathematicians, etc.

I assume what sets legalese a bit apart from very modern special sub-languages is that, since the profession is so old, it reflects words that used to be more commonplace either in the same language, but hundreds of years ago; or loan words from Latin or other predecessor languages.

A domain language for a profession which is either quite new (e.g., computer science) or at least subject to frequent renewal (e.g., engineering disciplines which are being influenced by newer technology that may well make almost all older technology obsolete in a very short amount of time; think of CAD replacing hand-made drawings, in construction) will probably tend to take their special words more from English (in the western parts of the world), or some other modern language in other parts.

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    I think it’s best to compare to mathematicians’ language. A language where sentences like this make perfect sense “An unknot is any embedded topological circle in the 3-sphere that is ambient isotopic (that is, deformable) to a geometrically round circle, the standard unknot.”
    – Michael
    Sep 6, 2023 at 11:36
  • @Michael, not having studied topology myself (but enjoying myself some nice lay maths once in a while) I find it fascinating that that sentence is actually pretty straightforward to untangle!
    – AnoE
    Sep 6, 2023 at 12:53
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    The thing that sets legalese apart from most other domain-specific languages is that it is not only lexically aberrant, but also syntactically aberrant. In many languages, even just parsing legalese sentences syntactically can be a challenge, because they tend to be very long and very complex, and they often use even very basic vocabulary like conjunctions and subordinators in unusual ways. Sep 6, 2023 at 13:29
  • There is a big difference between domain-specific language as in the mathematical example from @Michael and legalese as used in English or German. The mathematical statement cannot be rephrased in everyday language in a similar amount of words without changing the meaning. Legalese as written in English or German in most cases could be rewritten in much easier to understand language without many additional words and without changing the meaning. Mathematicians have to use domain-specific language to express themselves, legal scholars choose to use legalese.
    – quarague
    Sep 8, 2023 at 11:57
  • @quarague, I don't know about that. One translation of Michaels example that should be pretty understandable would be Take a loop of string, lay it down on a big ball, and if you can move it around gently without cutting it until it looks like a normal circle, then the string is called "unknot" (or simply "without knots"). In fact, that would be something I would absolutely expect in a layman's book on topology. OTOH, I'm sure many lawyers use "legalese" simply because many of those term have been very rigidly defined by courts in the past - just like maths terms are defined rigorously...
    – AnoE
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:29
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In Italy, the concept is described by an Italian word with the exact same spelling:

https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/tag/legalese/

The word is pronounced according italian orthographic rule, and it is almost often used pejoratively. I do not know if it is related to the English one in its origin.

The concept of lawyers using an obscure and deceiving language is very present in Italian culture and is best represented by one of the character of the book "I promessi sposi": the lawyer "azzecca-garbugli". If you can understand Italian there is a very enjoyable lecture from Italian journalist Gian Antonio Stella which analyses many contemporary legal texts highlighting their incomprehensibility and their unwanted comical effect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tNYzNqbhow

EDIT: Another term used to describe the concept is "burocratese", which might be related to the English word "bureaucratese" according to this source (quite reputable). The same source reports that already in the XVI century, many writers were complaining about the obscure and deceptive language of the various Italian administrations.

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  • Props for the reference to Manzoni, forgot about it but it's very relevant.
    – bracco23
    Sep 6, 2023 at 14:42
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As a student in China, I once read one of China's law codes in the original Chinese. I wouldn't call the language used in that document "legalese"; it was standard, modern Mandarin, but written in a very precise style, which is not usual for most written Chinese.

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  • But do you know if the terms (I'm not even sure that's the right word) have a more specific meaning in a legal context? Kind of like how 'shall' and 'will' are roughly the same in standard English but when used in legal documents have precise and different meanings?
    – JimmyJames
    Sep 5, 2023 at 17:53
  • @JimmyJames, although this was 20 years ago, as I recall, there was nothing which implied that any words were being used with a special, unusual meaning. The document made sense when interpreted as ordinary written Chinese. Further, my Chinese teachers apparently felt that reading a law statute was an appropriate assignment for an advanced Chinese student, without any particular preparation or guidance from the instructor.
    – Alex D
    Sep 6, 2023 at 6:26
  • Incidentally, the statute in question was the 生育法 ("reproduction law" or "fertility law"), in which China's "one-child policy" was set forth. I was surprised to discover that the "one-child policy" (which has since been revised) was more nuanced than I had previously assumed.
    – Alex D
    Sep 6, 2023 at 6:28
  • What you are saying makes sense and I know almost nothing about Chinese (I assume you mean Mandarin here) but what I am trying to point out is that a literate English speaker is often able to read legal text and think they understand it but unless someone points out that 'shall' and 'will' are not synonyms in legalese, there's really no reason to think they aren't. There are many (many) people in the US, for example, who will site the US constitution and just assume an understanding based on our current usage of words.
    – JimmyJames
    Sep 6, 2023 at 21:20
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    @JimmyJames or, in engineering, "will" refers to an assertion of how the system will be used, while "shall" indicates a requirement that must be implemented in the system. For example, "The Mobile Robotic Camera will be deployed to the surface of Mars. It shall record at 60 frames a second...." Sep 7, 2023 at 0:01
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In we have juridiquês, marked by the usage of excessive legal jargon, Latin, older words that nobody uses in everyday conversation and long sentences.

But it's pretty much a thing for older lawyers and judges (or for those trying to emulate this style), younger ones tend to frown upon it and have a more practical and concise style.

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In we have the term "kancellisprog" which means something like

Verbose language with long sentences and intricate sentence structure known especially from legal and administrative writings

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In bahasa hukum (literally 'legal language') is noted by a former attorney general as

Bahasa hukum sering ‘memperkosa’ kaidah tata bahasa, baik dalam susunan kalimat atau penggunaan istilah yang tidak lazim dalam pengertian umum

in English:

Legal language often 'molest' the grammar, both in sentence structure and usage of uncommon terms

Aside from Latin words, Dutch (as a legacy of colonial history) legal terms are also still used in modern courts. Note that Latin isn't even offered in schools, and very few (as in, likely dozens at most in a country with hundreds of millions population) schools even have optional Dutch language classes, usually offered alongside the more popular French or German. While the Indonesian language does have plenty of Dutch loanwords in general usage, very few of them share the basic form of the Dutch legal terms. Thus, an educated Indonesian not from a legal background wouldn't be able to understand the legal terms without guessing in case the words happen to share a root with English words which are far more understood by Indonesian, since Dutch was never a lingua franca in Indonesia even during the colonial period.

As noted, even if no uncommon terms are used, the sentence structures tend to look awkward and might be misunderstood by laymen, to the point that news covering court sentences or proposed law would have to explain them in non-legal terms, sometimes (deliberately or not) ambiguously.

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Turkish law system uses a lot of words from the so-called Old Turkish (aka Ottoman Turkish or Ottoman Language). Many of those words are no longer used in modern Turkish, or even recognized by most people.

Though, rather interestingly, the grammar constructs mostly match modern Turkish, it is just the words that are still being used in legal context.

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Not a full answer, but to address a specific remark in the OP:

Do Israeli lawyers file court pleadings written in quasi-Biblical Hebrew that sounds almost nothing like what you hear on the street in Tel Aviv?

In Israel some affairs are handled by the government (i.e., secular) courts, while others are outsourced to religious authorities (these are limited, but include such aspects of life as marriage and divorce, burial, kashrut, etc.) This state of affairs has its root in some particularities of the difficulties that the first Israeli parliament experienced in passing a constitution. Correspondingly, the religious affairs are handled in more "traditional" language by special Rabbinical courts, grounded in the long legal Jewish tradition (dating back to the Laws of Moses).

Secular legal system in Israel is largely based on the Western legal systems. However, as an anecdote, I have heard of the Israeli legal firms working mostly with immigrants from the former Soviet Union (who form a significant minority in Israel), which would employ native Russian speakers as interlocutors for interacting with clients, but to hire Israeli-born lawyers for actually pleading the cases in court - motivating it by those better grasp not only of Hebrew, but also of Aramaic - ancient language used in many old legal writings, but which is not spoken today.

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