corpus linguistics and the law

Aaron Blake has a post on The Washington Post’s Fix that some of y’all may find interesting, as it touches on the use of corpus linguistics in legal argument.

I find the concept of corpus linguistics very interesting—in essence, it’s the ability to look at large quantities of written or spoken text and analyze it. It’s looking at how language does work, often in opposition to how it should work, or how we think it works. There are limitations to it, of course, which I’m in no position to understand, but from my angle it looks like an incredibly powerful tool. Particularly since legal arguments seem to stand on the question of what a particular word or phrase meant to the writers of a piece of legislation or to the people they were writing for. It has been common for legal decisions to haul out dictionary definitions as being dispositive of what a term means, and corpus linguistics is a different tool for looking at what a term means when people actually use it.

In this case, the term in question is emolument, and under what circumstances a public official may be said to be in violation of the constitutional ban on accepting them. This has never been decided to everybody’s satisfaction, and probably never will—I don’t think corpus linguistics is going to change anybody’s mind about whether President Trump should be impeached or removed from office in any way. But I think it’s an interesting technique, anyway, and Clark Cunningham and Jesse Egbert seem to me to make an excellent case in the amicus brief that the common use was broader than the dictionary definition appears to indicate.


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