When Linguistics Meets the Law: An Interdisciplinary Endeavor

Earlier this week, on Constitution Day, BYU Law School issued a press release publicly launching the Law & Corpus Linguistics Technology Platform1. The site will house several large bodies of text compiled to cover the linguistic range of the constitutional record, and is open and available to any user, be it linguist, lawyer, or laymen. This initiative has come a long way since its early conception, and several factors ought to be credited for its progression. One of the Humanities Center’s former faculty fellows, Mark Davies, has certainly paved the way for corpus linguistics to be utilized in a much broader context, with his numerous corpora setting a landmark standard for representativeness, construction, and accessibility.2 I would also suggest the acceptance of evidential forensic linguistics in criminal cases as an important precedent for the use of linguistic analysis in the field of law. More direct, formative contributions have come through the work of individuals like Stephen Mouritsen, James Philips, and Justice Thomas Lee, who have all brought the concept into application through foundational law review articles and published court opinions. Now equipped with an additional set of corpora, including the Corpus of Founding Era American English (COFEA), we are seeing an expansion of law and corpus linguistics that is redefining conclusions about statutory and constitutional ambiguities; a recent footnote from Justice Clarence Thomas of the United States Supreme Court citing COFEA is an exciting step forward,3 and next year’s 4th annual Law & Corpus Linguistics Conference will bring an array of commentary and insight into the practice of this methodology.5 And as an undergraduate involved with the COFEA project and the development of a supplementary internship and curriculum, I know that in scope and impact, things are just starting to get interesting.

If you would like a more concrete understanding of what law and corpus linguistics entails, or what it is aimed at accomplishing, you are much better off getting that from the team of lawyers, professors, and judges who have rallied around this growing subfield.4 For now, I simply want to point out what seems to be an important undertone in all of this. For me, the core idea being considered here is really just a supposition, one that provokes us to look beyond the current paradigm—what if a critical device external to the law, like a linguistic corpus, could be used as a means of addressing complex problems that the law, at times, is unprepared to solve on its own? This proposal to look beyond traditional methods is what most might term as innovation. But I think the more apt description would be interdisciplinarity. Indeed, the subfield of law and corpus linguistics is a demonstration of the fruits that come from laboring within and across boundaries of categorized disciplines. And I might argue further that some of the best of the humanities, be it linguistics, the arts, or letters, comes when they lend themselves to an interdisciplinary approach.

But what is it really to be interdisciplinary? As a student majoring in interdisciplinary humanities, that is a question I’m faced with frequently (usually in the form of a friend asking me to ‘explain again’ what exactly it is that I’m studying at BYU). In my case, the impressive short answer could be ‘a study of the diversity of human expression.’ In terms of law and corpus linguistics, interdisciplinarity may be better described as “triangulation,” which Professor Lawrence Solum of Georgetown University writes about as a multidisciplinary collaboration to target meaning.6 In essence, interdisciplinary means holistic scholarship, an admission that one area of expertise may not hold all the answers, that we need the cooperation of someone or something outside of our present circumstances to help us produce optimal results.

Perhaps we could hearken to an early J. R. R. Tolkien, who expected “other minds and hands wielding paint and music and drama” to follow up his preliminary writing of The Story of Kullervo. Can we not hope for others to enhance our own work with an alternate skill set, or a radically different approach? We’ve seen the success of BYU engineers who have cross-pollinated principles of origami with a whole host of solutions, from space-station satellites7 to bullet-proof barriers.8 I believe that more examples of interdisciplinary endeavors are on the rise, and I am eager to see what else emerges on campus from this kind of “experiential learning.”9

I would like to conclude with some generous reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, wherein he makes some fitting observations:

[I]t is one of those fables, which, out of an unknown antiquity, convey an unlooked for wisdom, that the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end … [F]unctions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his … Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things … Classification begins. To the young mind, every thing is individual, stands by itself.

But fortunately, we mature, and we learn:

By and by, [man] finds how to join two things, and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground, whereby contrary and remote things cohere, and flower out from one stem … But what is classification but the perceiving that these objects are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind? … The ambitious soul sits down before each refractory fact; one after another, reduces all strange constitutions, all new powers, to their class and their law, and goes on for ever to animate the last fibre of organization, the outskirts of nature, by insight.10

May we too be ambitious souls, relenting to our unifying instinct and interdisciplined in the work we do in our respective fields.

This post was written by Garrett May, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.


[1] https://law.byu.edu/news/byu-law-launches-first-legal-corpus-linguistics-technology-platform/

[2] https://corpus.byu.edu/

[3] https://abovethelaw.com/2018/06/in-his-carpenter-dissent-thomas-gives-nod-to-emerging-legal-technology/

[4] http://corpusconference.byu.edu/2019-home/

[5] https://lcl.byu.edu/scholarship/

[6] Lawrence B. Solum, Triangulating Public Meaning: Corpus Linguistics, Immersion, and the Constitutional Record, 2017 BYU L. Rev. 1621-1682

[7] https://news.byu.edu/news/byu-engineers-turn-origami-solve-astronomical-space-problem

[8] https://kutv.com/news/local/byu-engineers-create-folding-bullet-proof-shield

[9] https://news.byu.edu/news/byu-creates-new-office-experiential-learning

[10] https://emersoncentral.com/texts/nature-addresses-lectures/addresses/the-american-scholar/

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