Corpora in US courts/Der Corpus im Gericht

Mark Liberman at Language Log has once again, in two posts, discussed the use of corpora in US courts.

I’ve previously mentioned how translators might use a corpus to analyse specialist vocabulary. We do something a bit like that every time we use a search engine to see if an English term is used more in the UK, in US academia or maybe in Germany (could be Denglish). By using special software we can improve the quality of this kind of search.

But that’s not what interests me in the US court examples. What is interesting there is whether a judge can learn to get a better understanding of what words might mean than by just opening a dictionary. Because the understanding of language, particularly by German judges, has sometimes struck me as somewhat retarded. There may be hope in some parts of the USA, though.

The post Corpus linguistics in statutory interpretation (with links) discusses how Judge Posner determined the meaning of the word ‘to harbor’. Among other things, he did a Google search, which indicated that the verb implied sheltering someone, not just living with them.

The post An empirical path to plain legal meaning
links to a PDF file of an article by Stephen Mouritsen, “Hard Cases and Hard Data: Assessing Corpus Linguistics as an Empirical Path to Plain Meaning“:

This Article argues that the plain or ordinary meaning of a given term in a given context is an empirical matter that may be quantified through corpus-based methods. These methods, when applied to questions of legal ambiguity, present significant advantages over existing empirical approaches to plain meaning and over the prevailing intuition-based interpretive approach of many courts. Because large, sophisticated linguistic corpora are widely available and easy to use, and because corpus methods offer a more principled and systematic alternative to the impressionistic interpretation of legal texts, corpus linguistics may one day revolutionize the process of legal interpretation.

There are a number of rules of statutory interpretation in England and in the USA, as there are in Germany – the plain meaning rule is just one of them, and sometimes others override it. But it’s obviously true that ‘plain meaning’ will mean different things to different people.

The Language Log post also has links to a lot of earlier posts on this topic – I’ve linked to them before too. Mark adds an important corrective:

But it’s important to note that corpus-based methods, here as elsewhere, are a source of evidence for linguistic arguments, not a substitute for linguistic arguments. Without an understanding of the categories, structures, and interpretive issues involved in a given question, corpus evidence can lead you as far astray as dictionary quotations can.

It’s a difficult situation. Just as judges have traditionally decided whether someone was insane or had diminished responsibility in a legal sense, rather than in the opinion of psychologists, so I suppose the plain meaning of a statute provision has also traditionally been an amateur’s interpretation. Are these attitudes changing now?

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