Saturday, June 28, 2008

Scalia vs. Stevens: Linguistics Smackdown

Move over, Labov vs. Chomsky. The new linguistics grudge match is between Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Stevens, author and dissenter, respectively, in the D.C. v. Heller gun control case. I posted about some of the linguistic aspects of the case here and here. Both of the justices cited the linguists' brief, a number of times in Scalia's case, and both discussed several issues in the linguistics of the Second Amendment. Justice Breyer dissented separately, but addressed primarily the issue of judicial scrutiny of the legislature, rather than the linguistic issues.

Having just scanned the opinion, it seems to me that Stevens had the better of the linguistic arguments, but I'll be taking a closer look and I expect to share my thoughts on this blog. In particular, it seems to me that Stevens is closer to correct on issues of collective vs. individual interpretation and on the significance of infinitival "to". Both justices got in the spirit of the smackdown, adopting the kind of dismissive and derisive tones with respect to their adversaries' analysis that one doesn't ordinarily see in linguistics. One hopes it doesn't get out of hand, especially now that they can legally carry handguns in DC.

I think it's great that the Supreme Court discussed linguistic issues at length and referred to the linguists' brief. I'm not aware of any precedent. [The Court failed to cite linguist Bruce Bagemihl's work on gay animals in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case.] I think it's unfortunate that the Court's opinion nevertheless involved some bad linguistics.

EDIT: Bill Poser recently reviewed at Language Log the linguists' brief's claim that "bear arms" is an idiom with military meaning, doing a good job, I think, of casting doubt on the linguists' analysis.

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