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Language, Meaning and the Law

Christopher Hutton

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Language, Meaning and the Law offers an accessible, critical guide to debates about linguistic meaning and interpretation in relation to legal language. Law is an ideal domain for considering fundamental questions relating to how we assign meanings to words, understand and comment on texts, and deal with socially and ideologically significant questions of interpretation. The book argues that theoretical issues of concern to linguists, philosophers, literary theorists and others are illuminated by the demands of the legal context, since law is driven by the need for practical solutions and for determinate outcomes based on explicit reasoning. Topics covered include: the relationship of linguistics to legal theory, indeterminacy and statutory interpretation, the theory and practice of using dictionaries in law, defamation and language in the public sphere, and the distinction between perjury and deception.

This book does not assume specialist knowledge of the field, and is designed as a self-contained, advanced introduction to a fascinating area of study. The reader will gain an overall insight into issues and debates about meaning and interpretation, as well as an understanding of how these questions are shaped by the legal context.

Key Features

  • Concise introduction to the study of linguistic meaning and its role within legal theory
  • Exercises and materials for classroom discussion, workshops etc.
  • Guide to further reading.


Preface: The Scope of the Book
Introduction: Parables of Language and Law
1. Legal Theory and Language
1.1 Natural law and legal positivism
1.2 Formalism and realism
1.3 Liberal rule of law ideology
1.4 Radical approaches to law
1.5 Marxism
1.6 Critical Legal Studies
1.7 Critical Race Theory
1.8 Right-radical approaches to law
1.9 Law and economics
1.10 Luhmann v Habermas: autopoiesis and law
1.11 Conclusion
2. Systems Theory, Normativity and the 'Realist Dilemma'
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Description and prescription in linguistics
2.3 Language as system
2.4 Linguistics and systems theory
2.5 Linguistics: 'not for turning?'
2.6 Reflexivity, ethnomethodology, and systems theory
2.7 Conclusion
3. Philosophy, Law and Language
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Philosophy, language and social order
3.3 The linguistic turn in philosophy as a turn to law
3.4 The social contract of language
3.5 Time and the framing of rules
3.6 Conclusion
4. Issues in Legal Interpretation
4.1 Authority and interpretation
4.2 Dilemmas of legal interpretation
4.3 The 'literal', 'golden' and 'mischief' rules
4.4 Policy as an interpretative tool
4.5 Equitable interpretation
4.6 Conclusion
5. Literal Meaning, the Dictionary and the Law
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Literal meaning, dictionaries and law
5.3 Textualism in US jurisprudence
5.4 Dictionaries and linguists
5.5 Conclusion
6. Representation, Reproduction and Intention
6.1 T-shirts and triads
6.2 Genuine fakes: the counterfeit artist
6.3 Taboo language and 'images that wound'
6.4 Conclusion: who is to blame?
7. Idols of the Market
7.1 Introduction: signs in circulation
7.2 Trademark law
7.3 Conclusion: trademarks and the commodification of the public sphere
8. Insider Judges And Outsider Critics
9. Hard Cases And Ideal Interpreters
10. The Judge As Tennis Umpire
11. The Golden Mean?
12. Reflexivity And Garfinkel's Dystopia Of Reasons
13. The Single Meaning Rule And Defamation Law
14. Conclusion: The Semiotics of Law, Language and Money
Appendices: Discussion Materials and Exercises
Further Reading
Legal Cases Cited.


Through his commitment to providing an introduction to the parallels and ovrelaps between law and linguistics, Hutton provides a rich and engaging exploration of the nature of language, linguistics and legal interpretation... As an introduction, the book lends itself to academics as a teaching tool. This purpose is supported by the structuring of the discussion. Beginning with a more general, broader field of theories and approaches, the various sections of the book become increasingly focused on key issues and case studies, providing different ways to think about language and the law. Finally in teh appendices there is a selection of hypothetical scenarios complete with exercises and questions through which students can actively explore the practices of legal interpretation themselves.
- Kirsty Duncanson, La Trobe University, International Journal of Semiotic Law
"anyone who is seriously interested in language, law, and society will want to give Hutton's book a thoughtful read, and then keep it in a prominent place on the bookshelf for use as a handy encyclopedia and annotated bibliograpy."
- Ronald R. Butters (Duke University), Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/4