Legal Lexicography - Overview


As a branch of the general discipline lexicography, legal lexicography may be divided into theoretical legal lexicography and practical legal lexicography. The result of practical legal lexicography is called a law dictionary. Law dictionaries are available in print and online.

Legal lexicography is not just about terms, but also about language and usage. Especially when making bilingual law dictionaries, the lexicographers need to take a broad view of what legal lexicography involves. Most users of bilingual law dictionaries need information about language and law, and the lexicographer's task is to present the information as clearly and structured as possible. This involves various lexicographic analyses: user research, dictionary typology, and a clear structure for presenting and linking the information in the dictionary. The information must be presented in such a way that the user is not burdened with heavy lexicographic information costs.

As pointed out in Nielsen 1994, law dictionaries can serve different functions. The traditional law dictionary with definitions of legal terms serves to help users understand the legal texts they read (a communicative function) or to help users acquire knowledge about legal matters independent of any text ( a cognitive function) – such law dictionaries are usually monolongual. Bilingual law dictionaries may serve several functions. First, they may have entry words in one language and definitions in another language – these dictionaries give help to understand legal texts, usually written in a foreign language, and to acquire knowledge, usually about a foreign lagal system. Second, bilingual law dictionaries with entry words in one language and equivalents in another language provide help to translate legal texts, into or from a foreign language, and sometimes also to produce legal texts, usually in a foreign language.

The aim of legal lexicography is to suggest principles and strategies that lead to good law dictionaries. A good monolingual law dictionary will contain relevant terms with appropriate definitions, and if the purpose of the dictionary is to facilitate legal translation, e.g. a bilingual law dictionary, it will contain definitions, translation equivalents and other relevant information such as collocation and phrases in the source language and in the target language, as described in Nielsen 1994.

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