Beyond Basic Black

The accepted norm for dictionaries (juridical or not) has not changed the mission of their creators much since the eighteenth century. Then Dr Johnson thus defined a lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” However, at the Canadian-based Paul-André Crépeau Centre for Private and Comparative Law, a team of Juridical scholars, including some non-academics have turned the albatross of local legal bilingualism into an asset (nay, an amulet!) by disseminating a data base of Quebec Private Law definitions where bilingualism becomes a defining organizing instrument and a knowledge of more than one language boosts one’s understanding of the legal structures described.

Definitions of terms of Quebec Private Law i.e. Obligations, Family, Property are available digitally and all Comparative Law Libraries could point to the site as consulting this Private Law dictionary does not presuppose a knowledge of Civil Law structures or of foreign languages for that matter: A guide to the site is available but its structure is simple: One finds terms on the law of Obligations arranged alphabetically and defined in English with references to sources like the Quebec Code as well as case law: Very didactic! Just like Black’s Law Dictionary…

Less didactic and more dogmatic (in the German sense) is another similar effort at bilingual juridical lexicography: The Swiss Terminologie juridique francais-allemand // Juristische Terminologie des Deutch-Franzoesisch [Juridical Terminology German – French]. In contrast to its Canadian cousin, this work is organized on the plan of the two Swiss Private Law codes. Its full & proper use requires fluency in one of its languages [French or German] and a passive understanding of the other. The authors state in the short preface that Terminologie can be both a didactic tool and a reference work. Each page of the Terminologie is split in two with a parallel text in French and German on each page. Each entry begins with an article from the Code, followed by three sections:

  • A list of keywords and phrases from the text of article;
  • Short passages from doctrinal works;
  • A list of keywords and phrases derived from the above two sections.

One weakness of the Terminologie is the lack of references to the short passages from doctrinal works beyond a general bibliography printed in each volume. One must infer where the passages were taken which makes proper citation for a particular section of Terminologie almost impossible. By eschewing formal definitions altogether, Terminologie reflects cutting hedge modernity but also echoes the timeless wisdom of Justinian’s Digest: Omnis definitio in iure civili periculosa est: parum est enim, ut non subverti posset. [Every definition in law is perilous, and it takes little to reverse it.] L.17.202 Iavolenus 11 Epist. Five volumes of Terminologie have been published, each on a discrete theme: These are Sales, Contracts, Labour Law, Corporate Law and Lease.

Both tools (the digital Canadian and the print Swiss) are major contributions to Civil Law scholarship and their bilingual structure allow adventurous anglophone jurists to reach beyond “Basic Black”.

Daniel Boyer