Language and the law

The curious relationship between language and the law

Have you ever thought about language and the law? Aside from the words we use in legal translation and documentation in general, language and the law can sometimes be related in curious or strange ways.

 

Languages banned

Some countries and political regimes have banned languages from use entirely. The main reason for this is to impose the regime’s own language and culture, and to assimilate other people.

Mostly, governments ban the languages of minorities in their country. Language is seen as the most important element in obtaining and maintaining social integrity. so authoritarian regimes in particular ban the languages or dialects of minorities.

One example of this was Spain under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. During this period, the use of languages other than Spanish was banned. Other examples include

  • Kurdish in Turkey
  • Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian, Azeri in Russia
  • Korean in Japan
  • Singlish in Singapore (in favour of English)
  • Cajun English and French in southern Louisiana
  • etc.

 

Swearing

In some places it is illegal to swear in public. In Michigan in 1999 a man named Timothy Joseph Boomer was convicted for swearing after falling into the Rifle River. The law has since been repealed after an appeal in 2002.

In Mississippi you can swear and use vulgar words all you want without getting into any trouble as long as you’re talking to one other person. But swearing in front of more than one person is illegal…

 

Naming children

Considering naming your child Blue Ivy? Think again. Parents in Denmark cannot name their children without first getting approval from the church and government officials. There are around 7000 approved names for parents to choose from. Anything outside that list requires getting official approval.

And in Iceland, you don’t get any official document – including passports – if your name is not on the Icelandic Naming Committee’s list of 3500+ names. You will need official approval from the naming committee if your name is not on this list.

 

Naming a business

Want to start a business in Quebec? You will need a French sounding business name or your business won’t be approved. Don’t believe it? 17-year-old Xavier Menard was unable to register his design company with the name ‘Wellarc’ because his proposed business name sounded too English.

 

Language and the law – translation

Finally, certain countries require you translate all product documentation and even retail establishments into one or more official languages. This is common in regions with more than one official language and with social or political tensions between different groups.

For example, the European Union makes companies in certain industries translate all product or official documentation into all the languages of the Union.

To cap off our round of weird language laws, the Chinese government in 2014 banned wordplay because according to them, it makes promoting cultural heritage harder and misleads the public.