The Need for Linguistics in Law

A Supreme Court justice wrote an essay on the subject of constitutional interpretation. In response, a noted philosophy professor wrote with some surprise that he managed to write an entire essay about the interpretation of text without any mention of any philosopher of language, linguist, linguistic theory, or theory of interpretation. While I was disappointed, I was not surprised: despite the fact that language and culture underpin the law in the United States, most law schools (none of which I am aware, which isn’t saying much) deal with these subjects head-on (or hardly at all).

Interpretation of language is at the heart of the study and practice of law. The subject of debate in law is over the meaning and application of the language in a statute, contract, court order, or some other legally binding document or sworn testimony. Huge sums of money or even incarceration can hang in the balance of how some phrase is understood in (or out) of the context of surrounding phrases or circumstances. Considering the importance of language in law, I am shocked that law schools do not offer instruction in philosophy of language or linguistics.

Two examples of how words and grammar matter:

“The budget has $500,000 for each of the next two years of this program,” vs. “The budget has $500,000 for the next two years of this program.” Will next year have $250,000 or $500,000?

“Mr. Adams will sue Tim, Tom, Tammy, and Edward,” vs. “Mr. Adams will sue Tim, Tom, Tammy and Edward.” Are there 4 defendant parties or 3 (“Tammy and Edward” could be sued as one party under US law)?

If my friend tells me something that I don’t understand, how can I come to understand it? One theory of how we communicate through confusion holds that the two parties iterate  against each other until they are satisfied that they understand one another. This theory accepts that we clarify our statements with other statements that either try to say the same thing or try to say what the first statement did not mean (understanding by process of elimination).

People frequently accuse lawyers of twisting words- and all too often, that’s a fair an accurate accusation. However, the task of lawyers and judges is often to look at language and untwist the words of sloppy, daily language. I have no idea why they think this task can be reasonably undertaken without any training in linguistics, philosophy of language, logic, cultural or linguistic anthropology, or any other serious approach to communication, meaning, and language.


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