Professor Alison LaCroix, a legal historian, taught the Law School’s first class on law and linguistics over Winter Quarter with Jason Merchant, Professor of Linguistics and Deputy Dean for Languages and Instruction in the University’s Division of the Humanities.
The class, Historical Semantics and Legal Interpretation: Questions and Methods, was a seminar that taught students to use the methodologies of linguistics to gain a better understanding of historical jurisprudence. The meaning of words and phrases change greatly over time; this is a way to analyze those changes in legal contexts, whether in the Constitution, statutes, codes, contracts, or any other source of law.
For example, in the Second Amendment, the words “keep and bear arms” invite many interpretations of meaning. Using linguistics methods and new search technologies, a legal scholar can find uses of that phrase in historical texts and gain an idea of its changing use over time.
This is a new field, and LaCroix and Merchant plan to publish together on the subject. Their class was supported by a grant from the Center of Disciplinary Innovation, part of the University’s Franke Institute for the Humanities.
“It’s very exciting, because it feels like something that could have a real impact on how judges decide cases,” LaCroix said. “It has really enormous applications across all fields of law, to tell us something that is the real goal of legal practice and legal scholarship: what do legal words and phrases mean, and how do we know?”
Merchant, who studies the interface between syntax and semantics, said the course combines their respective areas of expertise: LaCroix is an expert in the legal texts and their ambiguities, while he knows the technology and methodologies of linguistics, which takes a mathematical approach to analyzing language. Most of the students in the class were linguistics students, though a few law students did participate.
“It’s great to work with an expert on early American federalism and constitutional law like Alison, and even more fun to coteach with her,” Merchant said.