International Law: Corpus Linguistics and Ordinary Meaning

41 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2022

See all articles by Eric Talbot Jensen

Eric Talbot Jensen

Brigham Young University School of Law

James Rex Lee


Date Written: November 18, 2022


The application of corpus linguistics to clarify ambiguity or provide insight in legal interpretation is quickly gaining recognition within the United States, especially among the judiciary. However, very little has been done to assess its application to international law, particularly as a means of assisting international courts and tribunals. In the international legal system—where ambiguity inevitably arises from the great diversity of linguistic and cultural systems throughout the world—the norm for understanding contested terms within a treaty or agreement is to look for the “ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.” Given the ability of corpus linguistics to effectively determine a word’s ordinary meaning, this tool can therefore significantly reduce the inherent ambiguity of legal terms in bilateral and multinational contexts, such as treaties and conventions, interstate negotiations, U.N. agency resolutions or statements, and a host of other international law documents. By using computeraided means to objectively model how different nations may understand a particular word or phrase, corpus linguistics may create greater transparency and impartiality in international adjudications.

Keywords: international law, corpus linguistics, ordinary meaning, treaties, ICJ, interpretation

JEL Classification: K1, K10, K33, K40, K41

Suggested Citation

Jensen, Eric Talbot and Lee, James Rex, International Law: Corpus Linguistics and Ordinary Meaning (November 18, 2022). 54 George Washington International Law Review 1 (2022), Available at SSRN:

Eric Talbot Jensen (Contact Author)

Brigham Young University School of Law ( email )

504 JRCB
Provo, UT 84602
United States

James Rex Lee

Independent ( email )

United States

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