Historical Semantics and Legal Interpretation

Monday, May 22 - Tuesday, May 23

Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society
5701 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Words and structures change their meaning over time.  The text of laws, however, does not change, absent amendment or other revision.  These two facts make it difficult for judges, scholars, and observers to understand and interpret texts such as the U.S. Constitution.  Current trends in legal interpretation make historical linguistic understanding urgent.  Originalist methodology focuses on the meaning of key words and phrases at the time of the American founding.  Other prominent approaches, such as textualism and common law constitutionalism, similarly raise questions of meaning across time.  Several recent, important Supreme Court decisions have turned on the interpretation of “keep and bear arms, “the recess,” and “cruel and unusual punishment,” to name just a few examples.

Advances in theoretical and computational linguistics, as well as vast new corpora of English, make it possible to determine for the first time with precision what lexical shifts have occurred over the past two centuries, how these shifts have affected both the diachronic semantics of words and phrases, and their syntactic distributions.  The results of such inquiries have direct application to questions of constitutional and statutory interpretation.  This conference brings together linguists and legal scholars who are applying linguistic techniques to questions of legal historical importance.

The conference aims to provide a forum for presenting results, and to stimulate and inform discussions across the boundaries of disciplinary expertise.