The Negative Linguistics of the American Legal System


  • Megan Phillips


This article discusses how the language of American law is fundamentally based in the negative, creating a binary to the positive which may or may not definitively exist, and defining legality through the illegal, allowing the two warring sides to mediate one another in an attempt to create an effective system. For Americans, the Constitution, being the highest law of the land, dictates any resulting legislation. America, founded on revolutionary ideas as well as precedent, created this document within the stage of an ever-changing world with the realization that Americans are not virtuous people, and this is why the Articles of Confederation failed. Therefore, the legal system of the United States is based not in the positives of humanity, but rather the negatives, and this is what the language of the law represents. Holding to only laws created mallum prohibitum, and therefore bound by language, we can begin to look at the way that these laws exist first and foremost in the negative, and from this, investigate how linguistics plays a part in the way that the laws developed from the historical context to create a governing system.