What is Law and Language About?

It has been said that the law is "a profession of words." Many of the problems about meaning that are of concern to language specialists turn out to be of interest to lawyers as well.

Ambiguity and vagueness are good examples of this dual interest. Contracts are notoriously known to be vulnerable to containing ambiguous words and phrases, and the wording of laws at times may be vague. Linguists have studied the kinds of words and grammatical structures that can bring about ambiguity and they have analyzed those characteristics of language that can make a text vague. A linguistic perspective can lead to a better understanding of these kinds of legal misunderstandings.

For those interested in metaphor the law is loaded with examples: Such legal expressions, as a meeting of the minds, a ripening of obligations, a binding agreement, a broken contract, had their origins in metaphor. The law has found the need for an even more intriguing kind of metaphor--the legal fiction. One of the most notorious fictions, which has occupied the U.S. Supreme Court, is the fiction of "the corporation as a person." The Court has had to find answers to the following question: Do corporations have any of the rights guarenteed to citizens and persons as enumerated in the Constitution?

Hearsay is another fascinating topic where language and law intersect. Which kinds of statements can a witness reliably make in a courtroom and which ones would be excluded as mere hearsay? Are there any linguistic features that enable us to differentiate between the two kinds of utterances? We shall see that there indeed are special linguistic traits that characterize hearsay statements.

The mention of legal language often brings to mind that incomprehensible jargon used by lawyers, what has become known as legalese. Why does legal language often appear to be so differerent from ordinary every-day English and how did legal talk get to be that way? An excursion into the history of our language provides some of the answers to this fascinating dilemma.

The course Law and Language considers these kinds of problems and several others. While looking at these various issues we will examine a fair number of actual legal cases that lend themselves to a linguistic investigation. These case studies will help to put into perspective the interaction of law and language.

LIGN105, offered within the Law and Society program, should be superb preparation for anyone contemplating law school. This class may be used as one of the elective courses for the minor in law and society, as one of the 12 courses for the major in linguistics, and as a general elective by anyone curious about the intersection of law and language. There are no course prerequisites: Neither previous knowledge of linguistic theory nor familiarity with legal concepts is presupposed.