[Ads-l] Emoluments & Corpus Linguistics

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 31 01:04:29 UTC 2019

One of Donald Trump's many alleged misdeeds is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution.  The Washington Post reports that two linguistic scholars have used corpus linguistics to marshal evidence supporting the position taken by the Maryland and D.C. attorneys general who are suing Trump:

"Clark D. Cunningham<https://law.gsu.edu/profile/clark-d-cunningham/>, a law professor at Georgia State University, and Jesse Egbert<http://oak.ucc.nau.edu/jae89/>, a Northern Arizona University linguist, used a technique called “corpus linguistics”<http://www.linguistics.ucsb.edu/faculty/stgries/research/2009_STG_CorpLing_LangLingCompass.pdf> (I know, it sounds like a singer in a punk band) to establish how the word emoluments was used around the time the Constitution was being written (n.b., not everybody is sold<https://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2019/01/corpus-linguistics-comes-to-the-fourth-circuit-and-thats-not-a-good-thing.html> on the methodology).


In an amicus brief, they wrote<https://www.washingtonpost.com/maryland-v.-trump-amicus-brief/47e48de1-66e1-4592-8952-28b80f446122_note.html?questionId=4e66df4c-65ea-4e22-be94-bf5e87aa4036&utm_term=.a34fbf46d272> that they discovered that the word had such broad meaning then that it often required a modifier to specify what sort of emolument, or payment, was being discussed. The comparison they used is to the word fork. Most people take “fork” to mean an eating utensil made of metal, which is why we don’t generally put the word “metal” in front of fork — but we do distinguish plastic forks and wooden forks.

Through a search of 95,000 texts from the late 18th century, the scholars found that “emolument was consistently used and understood as a general and inclusive term,” and that it “was modified with additional information, in the form of adjectives and prepositional phrases, approximately twice as often as the average noun.”

The modifiers distinguished “official” emoluments from general emoluments, and private from public ones. Cunningham and Egbert concluded that if the Framers of the Constitution had intended to limit the ban on emoluments to official payments, as the Justice Department insists, they likely would have made that distinction in the text.

But they didn’t."

Fred Shapiro

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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