Category Archives: Word meaning

Meaning in the framework of corpus linguisticsme

At the end of my previous post discussing Carissa Hessick’s paper “Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law,” I said that I would follow up with another post “making the affirmative case for the relevance of frequency data in determining ordinary meaning.” This is that post.

Given that subject, you might wonder why I’ve titled this post “Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics.” The answer is that corpus linguistics has not only provided a methodology for investigating meaning, it has also generated important insights about word meaning. (That was the subject of the paper I presented at the BYU symposium in February, which will be published, along with the other papers from the symposium, in a special issue of the BYU Law Review.) I’ll draw on those insights when I talk about frequency analysis, and I thought it would be helpful to make them explicit.

THERE ARE A VARIETY OF DIFFERENT WAYS to think about word meanings. One of them is the way that I see as characteristic of how lawyers and judges tend to think: the meaning of a word is more or less equated with its dictionary definition, and then the definition is in effect read into the statute. If you’ve read a lot of cases, you’ll probably recognize the pattern:

The issue here is what “flood” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines “flood” to mean, “a great flow of water over what is usually dry land.” Therefore, the plaintiffs must show that the water in their basement resulted from a great flow of water over what is usually dry land.

Under this approach, the dictionary entry is treated as if what it defines is the concept flood rather than the word flood. The dictionary entry is being used as stating the conditions determining whether a particular instance of water on the ground qualifies as a flood. Considering the role that dictionaries have come to play in legal interpretation, it is no small irony that many lexicographers would say that the definitions they write aren’t intended to serve that purpose.

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Replying to McGinnis and Rappaport

As I’ve noted, John McGinnis and Mike Rappaport have responded to my post “The language of the law” is not actually a language. They disagree with what I said, and in this post I will return the favor.

McGinnis and Rappaport make two basic points. First, they say that I did not address their argument that The Language of the Law is a technical language and that as a result there is a gap in my analysis. Second, they dispute my argument that the rules of legal interpretation are not analogous to the cognitive processes that underlie comprehension.

The Language of the Law as a technical language

McGinnis and Rappaport accept the point in my earlier post that legal language—or The Language of the Law, to use their preferred term—is not a full-blown language comparable to Hindi or Pirahã. Their paper recognizes that The Language of the Law is “not wholly independent of ordinary language”, and they describe it as “an overlay on ordinary language.” And they don’t take issue with the statement by Peter Tiersma that I quoted: “If we isolate what is distinctive in legal English, leaving out features of ordinary speech, what remains is far too incomplete to function as a language.”

This is important because McGinnis and Rappaport also don’t disagree with my statement that the strong version of their analysis (meaning the version that assumes a “wide conception” of language) relies on their analogy between The Language of the Law and ordinary language. So in order to defend that portion of their argument, it’s essential for McGinnis and Rappaport to show that their analogy is valid. I don’t think they’ve done so.

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Comprehension, ordinary meaning, and linguistics

In my first language-of-the-law post the other day, I talked about the fact that the words interpret and interpretation are polysemous—they can be used in multiple different ways that are related to one another: they can be used to refer both to the conscious process of deliberation that underlies legal interpretation and to the automatic and effortless cognitive processes that underlie the comprehension of utterances and texts. And I said that although it’s not unusual to use those word in both ways, in the context of discussing legal interpretation the can be to obscure the fact that the processes differ. As a result, I prefer to use interpret and its derivatives only with respect to legal interpretation, and to use the words comprehend and comprehension to refer to the cognitive processes by which utterances and texts are understood.

It occurred to me that this would provide a good lead for me to discuss some of the assumptions that underlie my efforts to apply linguistics to legal interpretation. I’m going to do that now, and I’m going to do it by drawing on (and adapting) something that I wrote as part of a book proposal.

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“The language of the law” is not actually a language

THE NATURE OF LEGAL LANGUAGE has been a recurring subject of discussion, within applied linguistics and (U.S.) legal academia. The latest contribution to that discussion is a recently-posted draft paper by John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport, titled The Constitution and the Language of the Law. (h/t Legal Theory Blog)

McGinnis and Rappaport are the primary advocates of an approach to constitutional interpretation known as original-methods originalism, under which courts today are to apply the interpretive methods that prevailed at the time of the framing (pdf). Their new paper argues that original-methods originalism is supported by the fact that (as they see it), the Constitution is written in “the language of the law.”

Although Larry Solum, of Legal Theory Blog, calls the paper “important and brilliant,” I’m afraid that I find its primary argument to be pretty seriously flawed. [UPDATE: McGinnis and Rappaport have responded to this post, and I have replied to their response.]

I’m going to talk here about two related aspects of the paper that I think are problematic. One is its treatment of “the language of the law” (a phrase that I will henceforth capitalize whenever I use it in the way that McGinnis and Rappaport do). McGinnis and Rappaport come close to treating The Language of the Law as a full-blown language on the order of French and Japanese, which I don’t think is justified by the facts. The other major problem that I see lies in the analogy that the paper draws between the rules of legal interpretation and what it calls the “interpretive rules” of ordinary language (which are better described as the cognitive processes involved in the comprehension of utterances and texts). This analogy, which plays a key role in McGinnis and Rappaport’s argument, is invalid because each of the things that they are analogizing is fundamentally dissimilar from the other.

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Words, Meanings, Corpora: A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics

On Friday I will be presenting a paper at a conference at Brigham Young University Law School on law and corpus linguistics. Here is the description from the conference website:

Building on the 2016 inaugural Law and Corpus Linguistics Conference, the 2017 BYU Law Review Symposium, “Law & Corpus Linguistics” brings together legal scholars from across various substantive areas of scholarship, prominent corpus linguistics scholars, and judges who have employed corpus linguistics analysis in their decisions.

Although there’s a link on the webpage for the papers that will be presented, they are password-protected. However, my paper is posted on SSRN and can be downloaded there. It is titled Words, Meanings, Corpora: A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics, and the abstract is below the fold.

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