Today I picked up a new Latin phrase: mens rea. My previous acquisition was suo motu, which means “on one’s own initiative”, and has often appeared in the Indian press. Mens rea is Latin for guilty mind or criminal intent. Talking about a recent case of insider trading in New York, a panellist on a TV channel said there is no criminal liability if mens rea is not established.
Language varieties such as Franglais, Spanglish and Chinglish are the result of the infiltration of English into other languages. With English and Latin, the boot is on the other foot. Just as the British empire left a legacy of English to India, the Roman empire left a legacy of Latin to Europe, which evolved into the “Romance languages”, such as French and Spanish. Though Latin is said to be a “dead language”, it continues to haunt English, and legal English has heavily borrowed from Latin. Champions of plain English have been asking for de-Latinization of English.
The person who sounded the war cry against Latin in 1999 was Lord Harry Woolf, then Master of the Rolls. Later as Lord Chief Justice, he continued to press for a ban on the unnecessary use of Latin in courts. One of the reasons given for this call is that Latin is elitist and discriminatory. It can be particularly difficult for those who do not have English as their first language. The common-sense rule is that if there is a simple English equivalent, then you should prefer that to a Latin phrase.
In daily communication, we use a number of Latin words without realising that they are borrowed words. Alibi, lacuna, veto, and quorum are examples. Then there are words we come across less often, but understand in context. De facto, “in fact”; habeas corpus, “you may have the body”; and caveat emptor, “buyer beware” are examples. Sub judice has become a convenient excuse for politicians who do not want to answer your question. If you say “sub yoodeekay” and italicisze the word, you are using Latin; if you say “sub joodisi”, you are using the English equivalent.
Then there are whole sentences or clauses, which express some legal concept that has come down from Roman law. There is a formality and dignity about them, which lawyers often exploit. Such terms are now part of the fabric of the law. Nemo debet esse iudex in propria means “nobody must be a judge in his own (case)”. Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea means “the act does not make one guilty unless there is a criminal intent.”
Latin has provided memorable mottos for universities and the armed forces worldwide. The motto of the Olympic Games—citius, altius, fortius (swifter, higher, stronger)—proposed by Pierre de Coubertin, will reappear on our TV screens with the London Olympics. A university in Chile has the motto, Ex umbra in solem, which echoes the Sanskrit words, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya.
Three years ago, town councils in England started imposing a ban on a number of Latin terms. The list included bona fide, eg (exempli gratia, which means for example), prima facie, vice versa and inter alia. They wanted these Latin terms to be replaced by simple English equivalents: inter alia by “among other things”, status quo by “existing condition”.
Opposition to these bans came from many quarters. Some compared this measure to ethnic cleansing. Scholars pointed out that Latin is the world’s richest language, to be treasured as a part of humanity’s heritage. It is still widely used in England and continental Europe to present legal concepts.
In the present decade, there has been a growing awareness of this issue. Some speakers, in Parliament or in courts, who occasionally slip into a Latin expression, invoke Lord Woolf’s name to add a note of regret for their lapse (House of Lords, 13 January 2010).
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
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