What did your law school do last week to celebrate Constitution Day? At McGeorge, students and faculty ate popcorn while viewing and discussing RBG, the documentary showcasing the challenges and achievements of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Meanwhile, BYU Law commemorated the signing of the Constitution by announcing the launch of its Law and Corpus Linguistics Technology Platform, including three new and historically significant corpora. This platform is designed to advance the field of law and corpus linguistics, a methodology that uses naturally occurring language in large collections of texts called “corpora” to help determine the meaning of words and phrases.

Because corpus linguistics is new to me, I rely below on the experts to explain it. (I do have a McGeorge colleague, Brian Slocum, who has published quite a bit in this area.)

Associate Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court Thomas Lee, who is teaching a class on law and language with an emphasis on principles of corpus linguistics at Harvard Law School explains, “Corpus Linguistics is new to the legal community, and it holds significant and largely unexplored value in the courtroom when evaluating ordinary meaning.” “When a case presents a problem of lexical ambiguity, corpus methods offer judges an approach that is empirical and transparent, rather than intuitive and opaque. Early judicial decisions employing this methodology have highlighted these benefits. It is exciting to hear of new developments that will make corpus linguistics more available and accessible to practicing attorneys, judges, students and scholars around the world.”

The new corpora will be especially useful to those who study the meaning of the Constitution. “The method of corpus linguistics, which employs large-scale data sets (corpora) that provide evidence of linguistic practice, provides an important tool for the recovery of the original public meaning of the constitutional text,” said Lawrence Solum, Professor of Law at Georgetown Law and an internationally recognized author and expert in constitutional theory.

Designed specifically for lawyers and scholars, the new Law and Corpus Linguistics Technology Platform for linguistic analysis includes:

  • The Corpus of Founding Era American English, which contains over 140 million words, allowing the user to examine context to see how words from the Constitution were used at the time of the founding (1750 – 1799). This resource provides judges with evidence for the original meaning of the Constitution, even though we are more than 200 years removed from its ratification.
  • The Corpus of Early Modern English, which contains more than 40,000 texts from 1485 to 1800.
  • The Corpus of Supreme Court of the United States contains more than 130 million words from 32,000 Supreme Court documents.

These resources are free and available to legal professionals, judges, scholars and the public.

The Law and Corpus Linguistics Technology Platform features a user-friendly interface offering the ability to search these corpora by terms and phrases with filters for year, primary author, genre (legal or non-legal document, court proceeding, speech, diary entry, novel, etc.) and source. The corpora also support collocation searches, which enable the user to gain insights into word meanings and relationships between words.

BYU has taken a leading role in advancing the field of law and corpus linguistics. In 2013, BYU Law offered the first course on law and corpus linguistics in the United States, taught by Stephen Mouritsen. In 2016, BYU Law organized the first academic conference on law and corpus linguistics in partnership with Georgetown Law, and BYU Law has continued to host an annual conference on the topic. Last year, BYU Law created two research fellowships dedicated to law and corpus linguistics. This fall, adjunct BYU Law professor and.

The 2019 AALS Annual Meeting will include a session focusing on corpus linguistics, Corpus Linguistics: The Search for Objective Interpretation on Saturday, January 5, 2019 from 1:30 pm – 3:15 pm. The Section sponsored on Law and Interpretation is sponsoring the session.

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