The Faulty Frequency Hypothesis: Difficulties in Operationalizing Ordinary Meaning Through Corpus Linguistics
70 Stanford Law Review Online 112 (Dec. 2017)
11 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2018
Date Written: December 21, 2017
Promising to inject empirical rigor into the enterprise of statutory interpretation, corpus linguistics has, over the past couple years, taken the legal academy by storm. However, little attention has been paid to an important premise implicit in the operationalization of ordinary meaning through corpus linguistics: Where an ambiguous term retains two plausible meanings, the ordinary meaning of the term is the more frequently used meaning of the term. Call this the Frequency Hypothesis.
This Essay identifies and explores an important reason to doubt the Frequency Hypothesis: A word might be used more frequently in one sense than another for reasons that have little to do with the ordinary meaning of that word. Specifically, a word’s frequency will not necessarily reflect the sense of a word or phrase that is most likely implicated in a given linguistic context, but will instead, at least partly, reflect the prevalence or newsworthiness of the underlying phenomenon that the term denotes. Accordingly, the Essay advocates for a more thorough reckoning of the Frequency Hypothesis before judges and scholars embrace corpus linguistics as a tool for statutory interpretation.
Keywords: corpus linguistics, statutory interpretation
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