Dennis Baron (in WaPo) on corpus linguistics and “bearing arms”

The Washington Post published an opinion piece earlier today by Dennis Baron, with the self-explanatory title “Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms.’” The crux of the article:

By Scalia’s logic, the natural meaning of “bear arms” is simply to carry a weapon and has nothing to do with armies. He explained in his opinion: “Although [bear arms] implies that the carrying of the weapon is for the purpose of ‘offensive or defensive action,’ it in no way connotes participation in a structured military organization. From our review of founding-era sources, we conclude that this natural meaning was also the meaning that ‘bear arms’ had in the 18th century. In numerous instances, ‘bear arms’ was unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia.”

But Scalia was wrong. Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare — they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

The two corpora that Baron used were made available for public use (in beta versions) about two weeks ago; more information about them is available in my post about their public unveiling, “The BYU Law corpora.” Baron (who had joined in the linguistics professors’ amicus brief in Heller) was quick to take advantage of these corpora, and on May 7 he posted this comment on that post (on Language Log):

Sorry, J. Scalia, you got it wrong in Heller. I just ran “bear arms” through BYU’s EMne [=Early Modern English] and Founding Era American English corpora, and of about 1500 matches (not counting the duplicates), all but a handful are clearly military.

Since I thought that this news deserved more attention than it would was likely to get in the comment thread, I did a separate post about it: “‘bear arms’ in the BYU Law corpora.” All of which is to say, you read it here first.

 

[Cross-posted on Language Log.]

 

 

 

 

2 responses to “Dennis Baron (in WaPo) on corpus linguistics and “bearing arms”

  1. Oliver Neukum

    It seems that your definitions don’t match. Justice Scalia precisely said that bearing arms refers to combat, so not merely carrying around a weapon.

  2. Oliver, I’m afraid you’ve got it backward.

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