Category Archives: Polysemy

Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep” (part 2)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the “Download” button at the top right of the screen.

In  my last post (longer ago than I care to admit), I offered a very brief introduction to corpus analysis and used corpus data on the word keep as the raw material for a demonstration of corpus analysis in action. One of my reasons for doing that was to talk about the approach to word meaning that I think is appropriate when using corpus linguistics in legal interpretation.

That approach, which is described in my article “A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics” (pdf), is based on work in corpus-based lexicography, and it provides a way of dealing with puzzling fact about language. Many words have multiple possible meanings when they are considered in isolation, but when used in a sentence they are typically unambiguous. The basic insight that grew out of lexicographic corpus analysis is that when a word is used in a given context, what is generally thought of as the meaning of the word in that context is often more appropriately regarded as the meaning of a larger unit consisting of the word together with certain elements of the accompanying text. And it turns out that it is often possible to identify the kinds of contextual elements that are associated with particular meanings.

This has implications for the use of corpus linguistics in legal interpretation, because it can provide guidance in querying the corpus and then sifting and analyzing the data. The key is to look for concordance lines in which the relevant word is used in a context that is grammatically and semantically similar to the context in the legal provision at issue. (For an idea of the kind of similarity I’m talking about, see my analysis of Muscarello v. United States and my post “The semantics of sleeping in railway stations.”)

The approach that I’ve described also has implications for this reexamination of the District of Columbia v. Heller. Those implications arise from the fact that at a key point in the decision, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that when bear arms is used to denote activities such as serving as a soldier and fighting in a war, its use is idiomatic. And the approach I’m following provides a way of thinking about idiomaticity that differs from the traditional view of the phenomenon—which was the view underlying this aspect of Heller.

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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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