« Kristen Eichensehr: Courts, Congress, and the Conduct of Foreign Relations
Michael Ramsey
| Main | The President, the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and the Take-Care Clause
Chris Green »

05/23/2018

Dennis Baron on Scalia, Heller and Corpus Linguistics
Michael Ramsey

In the Washington Post, Dennis Baron (Illinois, English/Linguistics): Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms’.  Key excerpts:

In his opinion in Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia, who said that we must understand the Constitution’s words exactly as the framers understood them, disconnected the right to keep and bear arms from the need for a well-regulated militia, in part because he concluded that the phrase “bear arms” did not refer to military contexts in the founding era.

...

But Scalia was wrong. Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare — they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

I would like to hear more about the eighteenth century use of the full phrase "keep and bear arms."  But clearly corpus linguistics analysis is not always going to produce result originalists expect or are happy with.

Thanks to Neal Goldfarb (LAWnLinguistics) for the pointer.  He has a helpful background post on the BYU project here: The BYU Law corpora (updated).  It begins:

I’d imagine that most people who’ve been actively involved with corpus linguistics are familiar with the BYU corpora—a collection of web-accessible corpora created by Brigham Young University linguistics professor Mark Davies. These corpora (and BYU’s corpus-linguistics program more generally) have played an essential part in the development of what I’ll call the corpus-linguistic turn in legal interpretation. The BYU corpora served as my entry-point into corpus linguistics, and they have provided the corpus data that has been used in most of the law-and-corpus-linguistics work that has been done to date. And beyond that, the BYU Law School has played an enormous role, in a variety of ways, in Law and Corpus Linguistics becoming a thing.

One of the things that the law school has been doing has been happening largely behind the scenes. For the past two or three years, people there have been developing the Corpus of Founding Era American English (COFEA)—a historical corpus that is intended as resource for studying language usage in the time leading up to the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. At this year’s conference on law and corpus linguistics (the third such conference, all of them hosted by the BYU Law School), we were given a preview of COFEA. And via a tweet by the law school’s dean, Gordon Smith, I’ve now learned that a beta version of COFEA is up and available for public playing-around-with, as are beta versions of two other corpora: the Corpus of Early Modern English and the Corpus of Supreme Court of the United States.