Why not go to law school?

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Sir William Jones, the great scholar of "eastern" languages routinely (though incorrectly) credited with discovering the Indo-European language family and founding modern historical linguistics, was by profession a lawyer. He learned Sanskrit as a judge in India. In his book Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents, Robert Irwin reports (pp. 123-4) that:

At an early stage in his life, Jones's father had considered attaching him to a chambers to get a legal education, but Jones had resisted this on the understandable grounds that the quality of the Latin used in English law books was so very bad.

I don't think this excuse will work anymore.


  1. jlr said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    Why? Is the quality of the Latin used in law books much better now?

  2. Bill Poser said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    The Latin used in English law books is scarcer now, I think., and few prospective law students know enough Latin to have any ability to judge its quality. For most current law students, the remaining Latin phrases are unanalyzable bits of an unfamiliar language.

  3. Lane said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    Sorry for being the newbie, but why is it incorrect that Jones discovered Indo-European?

    Wikipedia points out that earlier scholars including Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn were aware of the relationship of Persian to the European languages. But it does not cite a pre-Jones discovery of the larger Indo-European family. Jones not only noticed the similarity of Sanskrit to Latin and Greek, but proposed the relationship of all three to Gothic and Celtic languages as well as Persian.

  4. jlr said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    Why? Is the quality of the Latin used in law books much better now?
    Sorry, I should have put a smiley after that.

  5. Bill Walderman said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

    "Is the quality of the Latin used in law books much better now?"

    As a lawyer with some knowledge of Latin, I can't count the number of times I've been entertained to see the phrase "de minimus."

  6. Paul O'Brien said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

    I'm a lawyer in Scotland, and it's fair to say that you hardly ever encounter actual Latin these days. When you see Latin phrases these days, they're usually being used as loan words – and they've generally acquired specific jargon connotations far removed from their literal meaning.

  7. Lars said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    Yeah, I'd like to second Lane's question: What IS the scoop on Jones and the Indo-European hypothesis? I'd always heard that he was the first to formulate it and, more importantly, the first to make the case for it before a wider audience. So if he doesn't get the credit, who does?

  8. Randy said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    Please see A.P. Herbert on the "new pronunciation" of Latin in the 1920s, with law latin pronounced as if Caesar were in Chambers in the Temple. The judges in that case decided that law latin was a living language, to be pronounced as it was pronounced by the living users of the language, and not be some dead Roman general.

    Also, Peter Cook in the Edinburgh Beyond the Fringe Festival, as the coal miner who couldn't be a judge because he "didn't have the Latin for the judgin'".

    Law Latin and Law Norman have been arguably living languages and not just jargon since 1200 CE (or AD).

    Not that they are used correctly.

  9. Joe said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    > As a lawyer with some knowledge of Latin, I can't count the number of times I've been entertained to see the phrase "de minimus."

    Is there any legal reason they can't just replace that phrase with "inconsequential" or "minimal" or something similar depending on context? Or is it just one of those traditional things that has become resistant to change?

  10. Randy said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 3:25 pm


    The whole maxim is de minimis non curat lex.

    The Law does not cure small [wrongs]. It has been a maxim of equity since before Lord Coke. The Law does not sweat the small stuff.

    The maxim has meaning. I think that just becuase the meaning is not remembered by those who use or misuse the tag does not mean that we shouldn't remember the meaning or the maxim and use it correctly when we can. And if others don't, well, de minimibus sint.

  11. Randy said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

    and before anybody gets upset, "de minimibus sint' was meant as a bad joke.

  12. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

    As a thread about lawyers and Latin is surely fair game for pedantry, I feel enabled to point out that "curat" means "cares for" not "cures". (cf "curator").

    The maxim "de minimis non curat lex" means

    "The law has no concern with trifles."

    "doesn't sweat the small stuff" is fair enough.

  13. Randy said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    Did I know there was a Latin spell check?

    I did not.

    Can someone give me a latin tag for "do not make casual comments on Language Log"?

  14. Craig Russell said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 4:19 pm


    "Do not make casual comments on Language Log"

    how about

    "Noli(te) temere loqui in Commentariis De Linguae Rebus"

    The (te) makes this imperative plural.

    I must admit that "Commentarii De Linguae Rebus" ("Commentaries on Matters of Language") lacks the zippy punch of "Language Log"; anyone care to suggest an improvement?

  15. James A. Crippen said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

    How about Stipes Linguæ?

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

    Zippiness is overrated – it's got that Ciceronian roll …

    Don't like the sentiment though … what would become of the Interwebs if nobody made casual comments? There'd be nothing but pornography and illegal bittorrents …

    Returning abruptly to the topic:

    Why deny poor old Sir William the credit (even if he was a judge) except in so far as no single individual can be credited with starting modern historical linguistics?

  17. C said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

    If a zippy punch is the goal, I'd shorten it down to "Res Linguae."

  18. Joe said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 2:30 am


    Right. But "de minimus" is most often used as if it were a synonym for "inconsequential" (e.g. something like "Plaintiff has only a de minimus interest in the estate, therefore…")

    It seems to me that those who use it that way would be better served to use English. Unless there's some legal reason for doing otherwise.

  19. dr pepper said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 9:21 am

    Many romans would have adapted a greek term to sound more scholarly. So how about "glossianum"?

  20. Tracey said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 10:41 am

    With all this talk of "de minimis non curat lex," I'm surprised I haven't seen the legal limerick, which is the only way I remember the phrase:

    There once was a lawyer named Rex
    With diminutive organs of sex
    When charged with exposure
    Replied with composure
    De minimis non curat lex

  21. Paul O'Brien said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 10:56 am

    @Joe: "De minimis" doesn't mean "inconsequential", it means "so inconsequential as to be beneath the notice of the law." The difference is that you're saying something about the legal position. It makes clear that you're referring to the legal test, rather than just making subjective judgments or rhetorical points.

  22. anne said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    I know very little of Latin, but shouldn't this objection have been stated as "…that the quality of Latin used in English law books was so very poor"?

  23. Bill Poser said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 8:18 pm

    For my answer to the queries about my comment about Jones' role in the history of historical linguistics , see this post.

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