Brian Slocum, ‘The Contribution of Linguistics to Legal Interpretation’

Is the expertise of linguists relevant to the interpretation of legal texts? If so, can this expertise contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of legal interpretation than currently exists? This chapter addresses the value of linguists’ expertise to legal interpretation by examining the determinants of meaning of legal texts. On one view, the meaning of a legal text should have little to do with objective theories of meaning (ie, how people normally use language). Instead, each instance of interpretation requires an archaeological-type dig for the meaning that the author(s) intended, or an interpretive process that focuses neither on language nor authorial intent. On another, conflicting, view, the meaning of a legal text is dependent at least somewhat, and sometimes entirely, on objective determinants of meaning that relate to how people normally use language (both inside and outside of the legal context), and which may be said to in part constitute the ‘linguistic meaning’ of the text. Linguists are experts on various aspects of language and communications, including the inferential reasoning processes through which a speaker’s meaning is ascertained. The application of this knowledge to the interpretation of legal texts can greatly increase our understanding of legal interpretation (see Chapter Eight for an example of the application of such expertise). Nevertheless, the question of what jurists can learn from linguistics is particularly salient if objective determinants of meaning are aspects of legal interpretation, as these objective determinants involve a multitude of language phenomena to which linguists are experts. It might seem incontrovertible that objective determinants of meaning are aspects of the legal meaning of a legal text. Even so, the question of the usefulness of linguistics is particularly important and interesting if objective features of language are, in fact, significant determinants of legal meaning …

Slocum, Brian G, The Contribution of Linguistics to Legal Interpretation (2017). Inference, Intention and ‘Ordinary Meaning’: What jurists can learn about legal interpretation from linguistics and philosophy (University of Chicago Press 2017).

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