The Story of Your Nose or Why (International) Law and Linguistics is Fun

by | 24 Jan 2023

By now, the professor was shaking his head so hard I started to fear it might fall off. I was at an important international law conference in 2014, co-presenting our international law and linguistics research for the first time with my co-author from linguistics. As it was an important event and we felt young and inexperienced as speakers, we were both quite nervous. Just minutes before, a more classic doctrinal approach on legal interpretation presented by another junior colleague had drawn constant approval in the form of nodding from the same professor. But in our case, he just seemed determined to not accept even one word of what we said. By the end of our talk, we both started to feel vexed about this behavior, so we stared at the person with particular vigour when ending with the usual “happy to answer your questions”. The professor cleared his throat, got up… and left the room, probably to go to hear another panel.

Welcome to the world of (international) law and linguistics, a research endeavor (it’s a bit broad to call it one method, although of course we could have a long discussion about what a method is) that together with colleagues from linguistics, legal theory and international law I have been engaged in for now nearly ten years. For this blog, let me briefly indicate what a linguistic approach to (in my case international) law can be, and then move on quickly to why it is fun.

In my case (and that is obviously only one way to approach things), the goal is to bring more knowledge about semantics and pragmatics into law. Within linguistics, semantics and pragmatics look at different aspects of language meaning. Where the borderline between this different aspect lies and how to define both aspects is – as one would expect – subject to debate. But if I may be simplistic, semantics looks at meaning in a conceptual way – what is the concept behind words like salt, bird or land? Pragmatics looks at meaning as transferred through the use of language – if I tell you that there is a gas station around the corner, I am probably not only conveying that information to you. Perhaps as part of the context I know that your car is out of fuel, and I am therefore implying more than just the location of the gas station – part of the meaning I am conveying is that the gas station is open and has gas (at least to my knowledge). These things matter for law as well. We can look at linguistic aspects of legal writing (how does academia write), of legal drafting (what linguistic phenomena appear in legislation, where do they come from), of legal interpretation (when are we in the realm of semantics, when in that of pragmatics, what conclusions to draw from this) and so on and so forth. 

What this mainly entails is taking a hard look at language. We might think as lawyers that we already do this anyway; but here it brings a new perspective, additional details and questions. Have you really thought deeply about what “and” can actually mean? Or “or”? Because there are people who have written whole dissertations and books just about such seemingly narrow questions. There is a certain reticence from lawyers to really turn to linguistics, which leads to such scenes of disengagement as the one I described at the beginning. At first, linguistics appears irrelevant, because you will find lots of linguistic work that does not seem to “help” at all for the purposes of doing law (think of historical linguistics examining when “since” acquired a causal next to a temporal meaning). Then, at a later stage, you will be lost in lots of different directions of research that all seem to be relevant somehow, but you cannot identify the exact direction, paper, scholar, that will give you ideas that can be transferred to law (think of all the Gricean, neo-Gricean and post-Gricean approaches out there). Perhaps the key obstacle in all of this, however, has been phrased best by a colleague and friend when I discussed my research with him. “It’s like your nose”, he said. He meant that language for lawyers is too close and always in the picture, so you automatically have a hard time thinking about it more deeply or from a different perspective than the one you have to adopt professionally anyway.

So why do I think it is fun to engage in law and linguistics? I will not deny that the first few years felt like a walk through a desert, in particular because there were not so many other people trying similar things. The main fun part about it is that at some point you cannot “unsee” linguistics. You will constantly be faced with legal problems in your daily work, but you will recognize linguistic aspects that for others are invisible. At least for me, after quite some years of lawyering, this adds salt to the soup. It also means that quite often, you can very quickly offer an original take even on seemingly old and stale problems like legal interpretation. As this blog is about critical legal thinking, let me bring a related example. In a recent paper (under review), my co-author and I use experimental linguistics to examine whether certain claims typically entertained under a critical legal studies perspective hold up to such empirical scrutiny. Stay tuned for our results… 

So what to take away from this? Ideally, a simple idea: this linguistics department that most likely exists at your university, perhaps is even in the actual same building in which you are sitting right now might be an interesting place to go to and meet people. Perhaps it’s time to take some time to simply look at our nose? Who knows, it might be … fun.

Benedikt Pirker, Senior Lecturer, Chair for European, International and Public Law, University of Fribourg/Legal Advisor, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. The author is expressing a personal point of view. The opinions stated in this text should not be regarded as the official position of Switzerland or of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

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