The Volokh Conspiracy

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2nd Amendment

The Parable of the Soldier at the Bank

on the proper role of legal corpus linguistics, by C'Zar Bernstein


I recently participated a great conference at corpus linguistics and the Second Amendment, and will post thoughts on that soon. But in the meantime, I wanted to share a parable that I discovered on Twitter and found very helpful, posted by C'Zar Bernstein.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test the Linguist. "Linguist," he asked, "what must I do to correctly interpret this Law?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

The Judge answered, "the Law says, 'no person shall bear arms at or near any bank.' This proscribes carrying arms at or near rivers or lakes."

"You have answered incorrectly," the Linguist replied, "this means that no person shall perform any military service at or near financial institutions."

But the Judge wanted the Linguist to justify himself, so he asked, "And how did you come to that conclusion?"

In reply the Linguist said: "I conducted a corpus linguistics analysis of the words 'bear arms' and 'bank.' In the first case, I found that 'bear arms' had an idiomatic sense to do with military service that was used more frequently than the literal sense you favored."

The Linguist continued: "In the second case, I found that the sense to do with financial institutions was used more frequently than the sense to do with bodies of water. Go and hold likewise!"

The Judge replied, "I cannot. My law clerk discovered one piece of historical evidence about this Law in particular that refutes your very general background evidence."

The Judge continued: "The Law's author said in a newspaper article defending the Law, 'the recent public shooting at the river demands action!'" And with this one piece of evidence, the Judge moved the mountain of evidence supplied by the corpus data into the dustbin.

This isn't to say that legal corpus linguistics evidence is never useful or relevant, but it's a nice illustration of the times it is less so.