by Heikki E.S. Mattila. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006. 364pp. Hardback. $134.95/£70.00. ISBN: 9780754648741.

Reviewed by Trevor Parry-Giles, Department of Communication, University of Maryland. Email: tpg [at]


Originally published in Finnish in 2002, COMPARATIVE LEGAL LINGUISTICS offers an English translation of an important and compelling examination of the development of legal languages. This is a dense work, filled with examples from every part of the world, driven by a fierce commitment to unpacking the mechanics of legal language use and the implications of that use for legal practice and theory. It deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the role of language in the practice of the law, anyone interested in the comparative nature of international and national legal systems, and anyone motivated by the detailed exploration of linguistics in varied contexts, from law to politics.

Heikki Mattila’s forward to the original Finnish edition of COMPARATIVE LEGAL LINGUISTICS is a fascinating narrative of how someone comes to study, in such a detailed and exhaustive way, comparative legal language systems. Originally interested in legal languages as an undergraduate, Mattila’s interests intensified through his work as a government official in Finland in the 1980s and as a translator and lexicographer in the 1990s. As such, Mattila’s development as a scholar of legal languages has both applied and academic bases. These experiences result in a work that offers a “panorama of the subject, a mix of linguistic, legal, and cultural information” (p.xiii) that is of use to both lawyers who work in a comparative setting and to researchers exploring the nature of law and its application in national and international frameworks.

Divided into four parts, COMPARATIVE LEGAL LINGUISTICS charts the general field of legal linguistics and traces the development of legal languages in a series of European contexts. Part I offers a concise rendition of the foundations and parameters of legal linguistics, highlighting the linguistic approach’s difference from other means of studying legal language. As Mattila observes, legal linguistics “examines the development, characteristics, and usage of legal language.” “Studies in this discipline,” he continues, “may equally concern vocabulary (notably terminology), syntax (relationships between words), or semantics (the meaning of words) of the language” (p.11). Legal linguistics is distinct, Mattila notes, from studies in legal rhetoric and style, concerned as the later is with the capacity and ability of legal advocates to persuade. Legal linguistics also differs from legal informatics, or the study of the relationship between law and information. Instead, legal linguistics uses the specifics of language and the details of language use to explain how law works and functions, particularly in comparative contexts. [*489]

In Part II, Mattila offers an extended discussion of legal linguistics, explaining the functions and characteristics of legal language. Part II also explores legal terminology and the microdevelopment of specific legal language usages. For the reader most interested in the theoretical discussion of legal linguistics, Part II will be the most satisfying part of the book. Mattila’s examples and commentaries are fascinating and often illuminating. A penetrating instance of his insights occurs with his discussion of the dangers of legal initialisations and acronyms. Such usages may, he reveals, function largely for strategic or status purposes, may be confusing and, especially in a comparative legal situation, may overlap and have multiple meanings. “The manner of constructing initialisations is not uniform,” Mattila observes, and “it also has to be borne in mind that the culture of initialisations is not necessarily uniform amongst lawyers even from the same country” (p.89). Indeed, Mattila details seven concerns or objections to the use of legal initialisations that would not be readily apparent to either the practicing lawyer or the legal scholar.

Part II of COMPARATIVE LEGAL LINGUISTICS also reveals Mattila’s cogent sense of the role of language in the formation of community and culture. Not content to explore simply the banal or to explain the obvious, Mattila reflects on the power of language and its capacity to be central in the articulation of community and nation. So, for example, he highlights the linguistic tensions at play in the European Community between the civil law traditions emergent from French law, the role of German law in the development of Community law, and the increasing influence of the English common law tradition in EC affairs. Because of these linguistic interplays, “the legal system of the European Communities . . . can rightly be described as a sort of hybrid, mixed law, in which the legal traditions of Europe increasingly intertwine” (p.108). Just as EC legal institutions borrow from member states and their legal traditions, a reciprocal relationship develops, Mattila reveals, where member states are similarly influenced by the newly emergent EC legal structures and languages. Explorations like those in Part II of Mattila’s work advance the study of language beyond the stale discussions of its development and formation and strive to understand how language means and affects human interaction and the relationships between nations.

Yet another insight from Mattila’s exploration of legal language occurs in his examination of “loanwords,” the “complex phenomenon” that happens when a legal language adopts foreign words. Rather than relying on a typical example from Western Europe, and eschewing the obvious example of his native Finland, Mattila instead utilizes the Indonesian experience. This is a good choice, as Indonesian law manifests an entire array of forces that work on the formation of legal language. Mattila reveals the interplay between dominant, national languages, such as Malay, and more regional usages such as Javanese. Sensitive to Indonesia’s colonial past, Mattila accounts for the role of Dutch usages in legal [*490] development in Indonesia and the religiously colonizing power of Arabic through the migration of Islam to the archipelago. In short, Mattila’s use of the Indonesian context as an example of one of ways that legal terminology works in a culture allows him to display what is most useful about COMPARATIVE LEGAL LINGUISTICS—its capacity to appreciate and reveal the varied, often competing, forces that work to form legal language, and thus legal understanding, legal reality.

Part III is the largest portion of the book, and tells of the development of four different legal languages, tracing their histories, legacies, and contemporary applications. Because of its importance to many Western legal systems, Mattila devotes the first section of Part III to the heritage of Legal Latin, noting its lingering capacity to influence the languages of many contemporary legal systems. Mattila then discusses Legal German, Legal French, and Legal English. These are selected, he argues, because of their capacity to demonstrate different legal systems and traditions, manifesting as they do different visions of civil and common law. In addition, Mattila maintains, these legal languages continue to influence legal systems worldwide, partly because of lasting legacies of colonization and partly due to linguistic hegemony. Part III, as with the rest of COMPARATIVE LEGAL LINGUISTICS, is richly detailed and exhaustive in its treatment of the four legal language systems.

Mattila’s conclusion is a call for continued research on legal linguistics. In his quest to limit the confusion inherent in the polysemic nature of legal languages, Mattila calls for further analyses that “could improve the chances of avoiding mistakes and misunderstandings in the comprehension and translation of legal texts” (p.267). COMPARATIVE LEGAL LINGUISTICS, with its comprehensive analysis, careful attention to detail, and incredibly precise indexing, is a powerful and compelling first step in clarifying the competing meanings, the often confusing polysemy, of contemporary legal languages.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Trevor Parry-Giles.