The “Word Factory”. A Study of the Processes Engaged in the Formation of Legal Terms

Authors: Isabel Alice Walbaum Robinson


This paper explores the language of the law from the point of view of the factors that contribute to the building of its specialized lexicon and the options language offers to create, institutionalize and incorporate new words into the technical legal inventory. Sources of word-formation responsible for specialized lexicon accretion in the corpus are of two kinds: language-based and discipline-based. The former involves structure (syntax), meaning (semantics), and uses (pragmatics) of language and the processes engaged in word formation, such as compounding, trans-categorization, fusion, clipping, the creation of binomials and multi-word lexical units (henceforth, MLUs). The latter involves the creation of words engendered from within the discipline itself, such as landmark cases and professional contributions. As a language user, the legal professional is faced with two types of cognitive processing. On one hand, ‘decoding’ text meaning when carrying out language-related activities such as reading documents or listening to speech. On the other, ‘encoding’ language for the purpose of writing (e.g. briefs, opinions, articles) or interacting with a colleague, taking part in a debate or discussing a point of law. Awareness of both lexical and syntactic features of a language for specific purposes (henceforth, LSP), as well as its word-forming processes, provides the legal professional a vantage for interpreting, comparing and using the ‘tools of the trade’, legal terms. Word-formation is an important sector of linguistics that reflects back on the nature and characteristics of language itself. It gives an ‘added dimension’ to lawyers, in particular English as a Foreign Language (EFL) comparative lawyers, who fulfil professional obligations that call for the technical, rather than intuitive use of language.