Volume 109

Is Corpus Linguistics Better than Flipping a Coin?

by Donald L. Drakeman

Corpus linguistics offers the promise of “Big Data” solutions to difficult issues of constitutional interpretation. By searching the millions of words in COFEA, the Corpus of Founding-Era American English, scholars have reached what they have described as rigorous, reliable, and reproducible conclusions about the original meaning of the Constitution. These conclusions rely on unexamined assumptions about the nature of the database and the reliability of the methods employed for interpreting the data. This Article is the first to analyze those assumptions, and it shows why digital searches in COFEA are unlikely to be more accurate than flipping a coin. An understanding of these methodological assumptions will enable researchers to make the necessary adjustments to increase the odds of success in the future.

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