Volume 108

Against Corpus Linguistics

by John S. Ehrett

Corpus linguistics—the use of large, computerized word databases as tools for discovering linguistic meaning—has increasingly become a topic of interest among scholars of constitutional and statutory interpretation. Some judges and academics have recently argued, across the pages of multiple law journals, that members of the judiciary ought to employ these new technologies when seeking to ascertain the original public meaning of a given text. Corpus linguistics, in the minds of its proponents, is a powerful instrument for rendering constitutional originalism and statutory textualism “scientific” and warding off accusations of interpretive subjectivity. This Article takes the opposite view: on balance, judges should refrain from the use of corpora. Although corpus linguistics analysis may appear highly promising, it carries with it several under-examined dangers—including the collapse of essential distinctions between resource quality, the entrenchment of covert linguistic biases, and a loss of reviewability by higher courts.

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