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The faculty which men possess of communicating their perceptions and ideas to one another by means of articulate sounds. This is the definition of spoken language; but ideas and perceptions may be communicated without sound by writing, and this is called written language. By conventional usage certain sounds have a definite meaning in one country or in certain countries, and this is called the language of such country or countries, as the Greek, the Latin, the French or the English language.
The law too, has a peculiar language, to say the least. Some skeptics say it is not only peculiar but bizarre in its use of commonly understood terms to reflect unrelated, conflicting, or even opposite meanings.
There is currently wide-ranging sentiment, sometimes attributed to xenophobic or racist motives, to make English the "official" language of the United States, and a number of states have adopted such laws. However, their details vary and their ultimate constitutionality is undecided. Of course, in practice English has always been the nation's unofficial "official" language [except in parts of the South and sections of Brooklyn which employ languages sometimes unrecognizable to the rest of humanity].
On the subjugation of England by William the Conqueror, the French Norman language was substituted in all law proceedings for the ancient Saxon. This, according to Blackstone, was the language of the records, writs and pleadings, until the time of Edward III. Mr. Stephen thinks Blackstone has fallen into an error, and says the record was, from the earliest period to which that document can be traced, in the Latin language. By the statute 36 Ed. III., it was enacted that for the future all pleas should be pleaded, shown, defended, answered, debated and judged in the English tongue; but be entered and enrolled in Latin. The Norman or law French, however, being more familiar as applied to the law, than any other language, the lawyers continued to employ it in making their notes of the trial of cases, which they afterwards published, in that barbarous dialect, under the name of Reports. After the enactment of this statute, on the introduction of paper pleadings, they followed in the language, as well as in other respects, the style of the records, which were drawn up in Latin.
This technical language continued in use till the time of Cromwell, when by a statute the records were directed to be in English; but this act was repealed at the restoration by Charles II., the lawyers finding it difficult to express themselves as well and as concisely in the vernacular as in the Latin tongue; and the language of the law continued as before till about the year 1730, when the statute of 4 Geo. II., was passed. It provided that both the pleadings and the records should thenceforward be framed in English. The ancient terms and expressions which had been so long known in French and Latin were now literally translated into English. The translation of such terms and phrases were found to be exceedingly ridiculous. Such terms as nisi prius, habeas corpus, fieri facias, mandamus, and the like, are not capable of an English dress with any degree of seriousness. They are equally absurd in the manner they are employed in Latin, but use and the fact that they are in a foreign language has made the absurdity less apparent.
By statute of 6 Geo. II., passed two years after the last mentioned statute, the use of technical words was allowed to continue in the usual language, which defeated almost every beneficial purpose of the former statute. In changing from one language to another, many words and technical expressions were retained in the new, which belonged to the more ancient language, and not seldom they partook of both; this, to the unlearned student, has given an air of confusion, and disfigured the language of the law. It has rendered essential also the study of the Latin and French languages. This perhaps is not to be regretted, as they are the keys which open to the ardent student vast stores of knowledge. In the United States, the records, pleadings, and all law proceedings are in the English language, except certain technical terms which retain their ancient French and Latin dress.
Agreements, contracts, wills and other instruments, may be made in any language, and will be enforced. And a slander spoken in a foreign language, if understood by those present, or a libel published in such language, will be punished as if spoken or written in the English language.
Prior to the accendency of English during the 20th century, the French language was the one commonly used among diplomats. At an early period the Latin was the diplomatic language in use in Europe. Towards the end of the fifteenth century that of Spain gained the ascendancy, in consequence of the great influence which that country then exercised in Europe. French, since the age of Louis XIV. and until fairly recently, was the almost universal diplomatic idiom of the civilized world, though some states use their national language in treaties and diplomatic correspondence. It is usual in these cases to annex to the papers transmitted, a translation in the language of the opposite party; wherever it is understood this comity will be reciprocated. This is the usage of the Germanic confederation, of Spain, and of the Italian courts. When nations using a common language, as the United States and Great Britain, treat with each other, such language is used in their diplomatic intercourse.