Language News: The Corpus in the Court: ‘Like Lexis on Steroids’ – Ben Zimmer – National – The Atlantic

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Ben Zimmer, of NYT’s On Language fame, has produced a piece detailing how corpus linguistics is being used in the courtroom setting–this time in front of the Supreme Court.  At issue in this discussion:  the use of the adjective personal in a case involving AT&T.  Check out the link to his article in The Atlantic, which I hope will continue to feature his insightful discussions about language and, in this case, forensic linguistics:

The Corpus in the Court: ‘Like Lexis on Steroids’ – Ben Zimmer – National – The Atlantic.

Zimmer does a great job of explaining the linguistic and the legal terms to a lay audience, highlighting some of the corpora that have become well known to the public recently (e.g. NGram) and some which the public might be less familiar with (e.g. the BYU corpus).  

An interesting observation, though, is a comment that suggests that the corpus is the new dictionary:

“Going beyond the authority of the dictionary, Goldfarb’s brief appealed to a new type of language authority: the corpus.”

Zimmer, who edits the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus, knows that any good dictionary is, in fact, based on some sort of corpus, though our electronic methods for creating corpora have changed this process considerably.  In the past, dictionary writers/editors would have to painstakingly gather examples of words by hand.  What’s different now is that the process is becoming easier for others to engage in, which explains why were beginning to see it in more public discourse, including in the arguments of the Supreme Court.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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