In landmark decision, Supreme Court rules that guns don't kill people
debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Sat Jun 28 05:58:34 UTC 2008
There's another new post on the Web of Language:
Supreme Court rules that guns don't kill people; throwing out DC gun
law, Scalia finds that linguists are mad hatters living on the other
side of the looking glass
On Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4, threw out the
Washington, D.C. ban on handguns because, in its view, the Second
Amendment gives every American the right to own a gun. ...
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with a
linguistic analysis that the Amendment’s prefatory first clause –
stressing the importance of a well-regulated militia -- gives the
reason for its operative second clause (3). But wait, said Justice
Scalia, there’s more.
... Americans also need those guns to exercise their longstanding
Common Law right to kill one another in self defense, and to bear arms
against animals as well as paper targets at firing ranges. Scalia
fails to explain why English Common law, one basis of American
Constitutional Law, permits the British to enact strict gun control on
their side of the pond.
The linguists’ amicus brief in the Heller case read the Second
Amendment in the context of eighteenth-century English grammar and
lexicography to show what it meant to the framers, and what it still
means today. The majority disagreed with several of our findings.
The minority found our analysis more convincing.
Always ready to insult those who disagree with his interpretations, J.
Scalia called the linguistic analyses supporting the D.C. law “unknown
this side of the looking glass (except, apparently, in some courses on
Linguistics)” and “worthy of the mad hatter” (16).
Justice John Paul Stevens and the three other dissenting justices
weren’t convinced by Scalia’s explication of the Second Amendment,
either. In his dissent, J. Stevens complains that Scalia’s parsing of
the amendment is “overwrought and novel” (17).
Looking at the same 27 words of the amendment, Stevens comes up with a
linguistic analysis that is the polar opposite of Scalia’s: “When each
word in the text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally
read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in
conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia” (16).
Although J. Scalia equates linguists with mad hatters living on the
other side of the looking glass, what goes on in linguistics courses
actually illuminates how language works. No Supreme Court ruling can
The majority and minority opinions in Heller show that two groups of
highly-educated people can look at the same text and come to opposite
conclusions about its meaning. ..
find out what else linguists can learn from this landmark decision on
the Web of Language
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801
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