MEi:CogSci Conferences, MEi:CogSci Conference 2011, Ljubljana

Font Size: 
Cristina Siserman

Last modified: 2011-06-11


Studies show that in the current multilingual and multicultural society there is both an increasing need for a common understanding and exchange of concepts of the different legal systems and a great request for the preservation of the legal term´s basic sense and cultural value. Practical work shows that these requirements are particularly difficult to meet because of the variety of models used to express law within various systems and the complexity of legal language. One of the multiple examples is the EU Project LISE (Legal Language Interoperability Service). The main problem addressed by this project is the urgent need of consolidated legal terminologies within the 27 different legal systems in order to enhance interoperability and cross border cooperation. As the project spans over numerous issues, the core of my work is confined to finding and proposing the most relevant and adequate methods that would ensure a high-quality harmonization of the meanings of legal concepts.

A consistent part of my research shows that terminologists, linguists and law professionals have already worked substantially on the way legal meaning is formed and chosen. Despite their incontestable achievements, while assessing the exactness of the legal meaning (e.g. for the legal concepts of “Besitz”, “Innehabung” and “Eigentum” designating “possession”, “detention” and “property” even German-speaking lawyers and terminologists from Austria, Germany, Lichtenstein and Switzerland have different mental representations due to the concepts´ divergent legal consequences), there are still theoretical and methodological questions that have been raised. The major concerns reside in knowing whether each facet of meaning – the linguistic and extralinguistic poles of symbolic expressions – could not be analysed and described in a more precise way. Hence a wide variety of solutions were examined: different translating procedures and methods were performed, endless negotiations with specialists in linguistics and law were conducted, computational graphics to limit the core of the meaning were drawn etc. Having detected just some of the inefficiencies of these techniques (the huge number of professionals that have to be involved, the time consuming procedures and sometimes the inconveniences regarding the accuracy of the final terminological work), my proposal is that in order to be capable to objectively capture the meaning of a term, the classical linguistic theories have to be complemented by the cognitive approach and a bridge between these disciplines has to be encouraged.

Therefore, my main claim is that the organization of meaningful legal language units and words can also be illuminated by significant developments in cognitive psychology, computational modelling and neuroscience investigations [1]. Being much aware that legal concepts are mostly abstractions, based on the work of the researchers [2] who have created the first computational model that can predict the brain activation patterns associated with names for objects that can be seen, heard, felt or tasted, I propose an empirical study that advocates for a future implementation of a similar computation model for abstract words belonging to the field of law and administration. Combining the state of the art technology of neuroscience (fMRI and EEG – N400) with the cognitive psychology technique of think aloud protocols [3], I expect that this empirical study will close the existing gap in the theory of legal meaning or at least will provide fresh insights. I hope that the aforementioned tools will enable me to see if by having the same neural activations when thinking about a legal concept, the subjects also have the same mental representation of its meaning. I thus expect that this study will facilitate the establishment of a more valid, objective and accurate LISE terminological data base.


[1] Pulvermüller, Friedemann, (2001), Brain Reflections of Words and their Meaning, TRENDS in Cognitive Science, vol. 5, no. 12. Available at:

[2] Mitchell, Tom et al., (2008), Predicting Human Brain Activity Associated with the Meanings of Nouns, Science, vol. 320, 1191, Available at:

[3] Someren, M., Bernard, Y., Sandberg, J., (1994), The Think Aloud Method: A Practical Guide to Modelling Cognitive Processes, Academic Press, London, Available at: