Monday, June 18, 2018

Corpus Linguistics and Legal Research

When it comes to constitutional interpretation, it's safe to say that Originalism is a pretty big deal. But until recently, it was frustratingly difficult to approach original meaning from an empirical angle with any degree of real precision.

Enter Corpus Linguistics. This cool tool helps to resolve the tricky evidentiary problems (Yale L.J.F.) that attend to discerning what scholars like to call original public meaning: that is, the meaning that the Constitution (or even a regular old statute) would have had to ordinary folks readings a document of its type at the time it was adopted/enacted.

So, what is a corpus? Simply put, corpora are searchable bodies of text used to determine meaning through language usage. For legal research, we are most interested in corpora that are large (consisting of tens of millions of words) and historical (providing a linguistic "snapshot" of a certain time period).

For legal research, the corpus collection at BYU Law is the gold standard, especially the Corpus of Founding Era American English ("COFEA"). The BYU corpora are also designed by linguists, so they incorporate a balance of texts from different genres and offer a slew of analytical tools to aid your research.

This is cutting edge stuff. You might have read this WaPo op-ed using COFEA to shed some light on the OPM of "bear arms." In a similar vein, the LAWnLinguistics blog has a great series on "Corpora and the Second Amendment." There are also signs that corpus linguistics is becoming a valuable tool for litigants and courts: check out this 2015 decision used corpus linguistics to find the original meaning of a Utah statute. And for those who want to take a deeper dive, law profs are working together to write some excellent scholarship.

For more on a few related topics, check out Gallagher's libguides on constitutional research, legal dictionaries, and stats for law & policy.

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