Legal languages may be more stable than the natural languages of which they are varieties but in being used they will inevitably change. Heikki Mattila makes this point in Comparative Legal Linguistics, showing how even Latin has continued to develop, supposedly dead since the fall of the Roman empire but since used in many countries by lawyers, doctors, the church, as an official language of state, and as a lingua franca.

So how traditional was the traditional style that I was taught in the 1970s? And how much has it changed since, in either variety currently in use — the style advocated by the plain language movement and the one now used by the many remaining traditionalists? (The second question presupposes two distinct current styles, although that is an oversimplification: there must be a continuum between them, depending on the extent to which individual lawyers have been influenced by the plainers.)

The 1853 conveyance with its 6,000-word sentence is much harder to understand than the equivalent documents in use 100 years later, and the contrast with the 1936 conveyance* shows how much progress** had been made even before the plain language movement supposedly began in the 1970s.

* The bundle of deeds from which I took the 1853 conveyance and the 1885 abstract of title did not include a 20th century conveyance, and the 1936 conveyance relates to a different property.

** Not all changes in legal languages have been progressive. On the contrary, Professor Mattila argues that some earlier initiatives for making legal language comprehensible to the citizens — for example in 13th century Spain, 14th century England, and the German-speaking states of the 18th century — have been sudden government-imposed changes followed by periods during which various factors have encouraged the gradual regrowth of barnacles.

Since posting the conveyances I have begun a similar treatment of wills, whose development I hope to trace through the centuries from Anglo-Saxon times (if availability and my understanding permit). I plan also to add some contemporary "traditional" documents to contrast with their "modern" siblings.

I hope these pages will be interesting but I make no claim to scholarship. I have used some of the very few old documents that I have found and they might not all be typical of their time. Nor do I know enough legal or linguistic history for my comments to carry much weight. But all the documents were used by the lawyers of their time and they do offer some startling comparisons.

All the documents are English, and I can speak only of the law and practice in England & Wales.

The links open in separate windows.