[Legal Latin] An Introduction

So in my first post I explained that I graduated from The University of Iowa with a Latin Minor and an Ancient Civilization’s Minor. In addition to being ticked off about not being grandfathered in to the new requirements for the Latin B.A. two weeks before I graduated… It also led to other, unexpected rage.

While a Latin student I studied almost the full spectrum of the latin language: classical latin (gold and silver), medieval latin, and even some church latin “for fun”. (If you want to know more about these crazy differences, check out the Classical Latin  wiki site.) What I didn’t study, however, was legal latin. Why? Because apparently, there is an even lower abomination of a beautiful language. Lower than church latin.

[Full Disclosure: My opinion is based on the realization that both medieval and church latin are best described as a modern latin student attempting to write a doctoral thesis after only one year of introductory latin. All of the grammar rules go to shit and they make up both new rules and vocabulary at a whim to cover it up. UGH!]

Thus unprepared for the reality which was to be the use of latin in the legal community, one can imagine how taken aback I was by people’s inability to do two things: (1) understand it and (2) pronounce it. Heavy on the second one.

For the first problem, it’s important to note that latin in the legal community is used to condense a complex legal notion into a means by which to express it in a few words (aka: “a term of art”). In this way, the profession can use the term as something more than their simple translation.

For me, these words gave me the opportunity to have fun translating them when I found them in the text, and then delve into the reason why they were used that way. (But I also translate every bit of latin I run across. Especially the latin on the Massachusetts state seal while I was getting sworn into the bar last year.) For other people, the latin phrases were just a pain in the neck.THey memorized how the letters went together, what they meant, and then moved on.

The second problem, pronunciation, was more of a struggle. Way back in latin class 101, I was told that modern society has very little actual idea what latin sounded like when it was utilized as a language. There were a few things that we knew (“c” is a hard “k” sound), but given the time, various vowel shifts, and other linguistic nightmares – there was no “proper” way to pronounce things. Despite this knowledge, there are accepted ways to pronounce latin in modern times. This is what I learned, and I very highly enjoyed reading latin aloud during class. (I also always wanted to take a conversational latin class and anachronistically talk about computers and the internet… but that’s a whole other ball of wax.)

When I took medieval latin, things began to change. I was told that with the fall of the Roman empire, the pronunciation of latin also began to change. Okay, that makes sense. The romance languages were blossoming from their originating dialects of latin, and there was nothing wrong with that. In the same vein, Church latin also had different pronunciations, which was only to be expected.

What I didn’t expect, though I probably should have, was what happened thousands of years later as the legal community took up the reigns of the language. Talk about nails on a chalkboard…

So by way of introduction to this wonderful series of posts I’ll be making as the blog goes further, let me leave you with my first and most favorite of all of my encounters in law school.

I believe it was in Contracts class with the glorious Professor Andrew Beckerman-Rodau. We were talking about some point regarding having all of the evidence needed to show your case, a concept which in the legal community calls “Prima Facie “. (Which you might recognize from last week’s post.) So when I, being a newly graduated classicist, made my comment about the term I pronounced the way I had been taught. When I finished, though, my ENTIRE CLASS was turning around looking at me like I had two heads.

Then I realized what I had done. I had said “pree-mah fah-key-a”.

Everyone else, who had learned that the letters “prima facie” meant something as a term of art – pronounced the same thing “pry-mah fay-sha”.


And that’s when I knew what I had to do. Even if it got sold just as a legal humor book, bought by friends of lawyers who thought it was cute, I had to write a book that was entirely based upon legal latin – where the terms came from, what they meant to the Romans, what they meant to the courts that first used them, what they meant today, and most of all how to pronounce them in the widely accepted modern latin.

I had to do it. It was my duty as a classically trained latin scholar to see this done.

So here I begin, one phrase at a time, on a blog I started one year after graduating law school. These are what will eventually become my Must Read book for attorneys on Legal Latin.

I hope you enjoy!

Classicly Trained, Esq.

Next Week: the dreaded “Prima Facie”, exposed!

[EDIT TO ADD: Hahaha. I just realized that this entire post-series will be crawled by google, which will in turn make them show up when first year law students search the internet to remember what the hell the terms mean. Score!]


(c) Nicole L. M. Jurkowski, 2010


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