LAWnLinguistics: Corpora and the Second Amendment

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

If you’re ever looking for the epicenter of the intersection of law and linguistics, Georgetown linguistics professor Neil Goldfarb of LAWnLinguistics and Language Log has a really terrific series of posts on the topic of Corpora and the Second Amendment.

In his posts, Goldfarb relies on a corpus of language composed of actual language from the time period when the Constitution was created and then uses the corpus data to deconstruct the likely intended meaning of the language of the Second Amendment, including the words “bear,” “arms” and “militia.”

Needless to say, the linguistic investigation reaches fairly different conclusions from the Supreme Court that are worth understanding if you have any interest in Second Amendment law, and interpretation of terms in any legal case for that matter.

See below for additional readings on the application of linguistic principles in legal interpretation: to cons in interpreting language:

  1. Hoffman, Craig, “Parse the Sentence First: Curbing the Urge to Resort to the Dictionary when Interpreting Legal Texts,” 6 N.Y.U. J. Legis. & Pub. Pol’y 401 (2002-2003) (Note: Professor Craig Hoffman is Director of Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law School.)
  2. Rubin, Philip A., “War of the Words: How Courts Can Use Dictionaries In Accordance with Textualist Principles,” 2010
  3. Goldfarb, Neal, “The Use of Corpus Linguistics in Legal Interpretation” (June 19, 2020). 2021. Annual Review of Linguistics. Vol. 7. Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Did I leave out any of your favorites? Let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

Things I’m trying in our first-ever self-paced, asynchronous legal English course

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

Since I started my new position at Georgetown Law in January, 2020 (just a couple months before the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us), my primary focus has been developing a self-paced, asynchronous online legal English course. It’s been an exciting learning and creative experience, and the course now happily exists!

It’s called OLE: Orientation to the U.S. Legal System (though we have also created another iteration with the perhaps more literally descriptive title OLE: U.S. Legal System – Core Concepts & Vocabulary), and though it felt like this day would never arrive, I’ve now actually begun teaching it. (Note: OLE = Online Legal English)

Of course, I’m not teaching in the traditional sense. I’m not in a classroom and I don’t even have any lesson plans. All of that is embedded into the self-paced, do-it-yourself course. The course is set up so that students essentially work through it on their own, with various activities due each day and a final graded writing assignment due at the end of each week. The only synchronous component is are one or two Zoom office hour sessions each week that provide a chance for students to ask questions and discuss anything they want, and for all of us to get to know each other better. It’s this sort of “flipped classroom” model in an online, asynchronous set-up that I’ve never done before. And that I think has not yet been done in the legal English world. (And by the way, if I’m wrong, please don’t hesitate to let me know.)

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