Law as a Species of Language Acquisition

48 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2007

See all articles by James Ming Chen

James Ming Chen

Michigan State University - College of Law


This article addresses two questions. First, it asks what law can learn from linguistics. Second, it asks what linguistics might tell us about the way we learn law.

Scholarship on law and linguistics has focused so far on matters of semantics, syntax, and pragmatics - the essentials of meaning, sentence structure, and noncontextual aspects of language. The next wave of scholarship on law and linguistics should focus on finding the most fruitful level of scientific specificity. Most errors by lawyers as amateur linguists can be traced to the assumption that language is a static mechanism rather than a living organism. Instead of focusing on incomplete translation metaphors, this article asks how ordinary humans master any language, not merely the specialized language of the law. By comparing theories of childhood language acquisition with law and its interpretive process, this article seeks nothing less than the legal equivalent of Noam Chomsky's universal grammar - what Lon Fuller described as the morality that makes law possible.

Keywords: linguistics, syntax, language acquisition, Chomsky, Fuller, Scalia, Solan, statutory interpretation, statutes

Suggested Citation

Chen, James Ming, Law as a Species of Language Acquisition. Washington University Law Quarterly, Vol. 73, p. 1273, 1995. Available at SSRN:

James Ming Chen (Contact Author)

Michigan State University - College of Law ( email )

318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics