Linguistic Change and Politics

Terms like “Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Law”: Citizens become suspicious

Copyright: adpic German public bodies often cultivate a language that is hard to understand. Thus, it is not only Germans who have problems understanding what is being asked of them in official letters. Helmut Ebert, Professor of Linguistics in Bonn, explains what effects such jargon has, why some public bodies would like to use a different kind of language to speak to people and how they manage to do so.

Herr Ebert, you have written a Handbook for Civic Communication, in which you translate officialese into comprehensible German. Do you have a favourite example that shows particularly clearly how officialese can be translated into everyday language?

The basic idea of my book is particularly clear in the example of the word Rechtsbehelfsbelehrung (i.e. advice on applicable legal remedies), which, incidentally, is something that is attached to every official notification letter. This expression is complicated and difficult to understand. The bombastic language exacerbates a communicative situation that is perceived as being unequal because the citizen is presented here merely as an ill-informed subject.

Is that because of the word Belehrung (i.e. advice)?

Yes. This word brings citizens into play as the objects of advice. If I replace the term Rechtsbehelfsbelehrung by Ihre Rechte (i.e. Your rights), it gives me a different picture of the citizen. I see him as someone who has rights. The practical consequences are the same in each case. Both mean the same thing, and the citizen does find out what rights he has. But the perspective is different. In the first case, the idea conveyed is “You do not know anything anyway, and I will inform you.” In the second, what is communicated is “You have rights and I shall make a list of them for you just in case you need it.”

One aspect of officialese is that it is very impersonal. What are other features of this kind of language?


It is indeed true that officialese is very impersonal. But one must not forget that this impersonality was once tantamount to progress. What was behind the once progressive idea of bureaucracy was the “rule of the office”. It was created partly in order to avoid patronage and favouritism and to give all citizens equal treatment. To that extent, “impersonal” meaning “without respect of person” is completely in order. It should not lead to all citizens being treated like numbers, however. Perhaps one can put it like this: “impersonal in the positive sense means “without respect of person, but with respect for and consideration of the person.”

And what are other features of officialese?

Another feature is its use of succinctness. For example, “In case of inability, you may commission a third party to collect your ID.” “In case of inability” is a more succinct way of saying “If you are unable …”.

What is the reason for using this kind of succinctness? Is the aim to express oneself in a way that is absolutely correct? Or do reasons of linguistic economy play a role?

On the one hand, reasons of linguistic economy do play a role. Then there are also reasons to do with the history of the language. This use of succinct language may also be understood from the writer’s situation, however: The writer has time to put a great many concepts into just a few words. Sentences become shorter and more compressed. In the process, what is sometimes lost is who actually says what to whom: “A reply to the letter is expected by 1 December 2006.” Another feature of officialese is that it uses a lot of nouns. For example, “to call into doubt”, rather than “to doubt”. The idea here is to express a status that is legally defined. Unfortunately, this aim of being linguistically precise is often exaggerated, i.e. it is only apparent precision. I would rather venture to put forward the theory that we are running the risk of giving up a trademark of the German language, namely its precision. In addition, many abstract words are used in officialese. And then you must not forget that officialese is a specialist jargon in which terms are defined differently to the way they are defined in everyday language. “Waste” within the meaning of the law is precisely defined and this definition is not necessarily identical with what we understand it to mean in everyday life. Thus, such terms function differently to the way they function in ordinary language, even if they appear to be the same.

What effects does officialese have on the relationship between public bodies and administrative staff?

I am convinced that plain and simple language is a chapter that is still largely undiscovered. The language helps to determine the status of the staff of public bodies staff vis-à-vis their employer. And here, practice shows that staff sometimes believe that one has to write pretentiously in order to be respected. However, there are also many people who no longer wish to use pretentious officialese because they consider it to be inappropriate. When no-one listens to them, these staff are unmotivated and frustrated. On the other hand, if staff are inundated with more and more laws and regulations, they may be uncertain as to how they should behave. The staff ask themselves, “Should I write it like that?“ The consequence is that they want to protect themselves against everything and everybody. Of course, that takes up an incredible amount of time. There are frictional losses and often even their self-confidence is undermined. The staff doubt themselves, their own competence. Or the opposite: they allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of self-confidence or arrogance. In this case, they no longer ask themselves whether they understand a regulation themselves but simply pass it on to the citizen. The motto here is “Let them see how they get on with it!”

And what effect does officialese have on the relationship between public bodies and citizens?

In its external relations, language that is difficult to understand or that is pretentious leads to a public body’s or an administration’s loss of image. This is linked with a loss of trust, and in turn it leads to an increased workload because the citizens much more frequently have queries or are less cooperative. The costs of filing objections are increasing. Seen overall, the consequence of this loss of trust is that citizens are less committed. Anyone who coins words such as Infrastrukturplanungsbeschleunigungsgesetz (i.e. Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Act) can hardly be surprised if citizens become suspicious.

How are people who do not even have a command of ordinary German affected by this incomprehensible language? Foreigners for example?

I can only make a general remark on that. On the one hand, a public body that has realised that it is a service-provider will do its best to help foreign citizens, too, as best it can. At the same time, one should also not forget that German is the official language. But something that has to be learned ought to be attractive. We must be aware of this responsibility. That also includes taking a closer look at how good the German of so-called German native speakers actually is. And by that, I do not mean children or teenagers.

What has led to the trend that public bodies themselves are calling for their language to be changed?

Cover 'Handbuch Bürgerkommunikation' from Helmut Ebert; Copyright: LIT publishing house

One main reason is certainly the modernisation of the administration, where a great deal is happening, as more and more mayors are recognising. A modern public body and a modern language are two sides of one and the same coin. Back in the seventies, lawyers thought that scholars of linguistics were useful for changing a passive sentence into an active one. More and more decision-makers in administration, the law and politics have meanwhile recognised that ultimately, different practices go or should go hand in hand with the choice of words.

Could you give an example that illustrates this?

There is a difference between whether I “manage cases” or whether I “advise citizens”. When I “manage a case”, I have a routine process: Someone submits an application for planning permission, I tick off individual criteria and come to the conclusion that planning permission has to be refused. I forward this decision to the citizen. In line with this working method, you used to be remunerated on the basis of the number of applications you processed. That means that you could mass-process applications without resolving problems. Today, the situation in modern administrations, like that in Arnsberg for example, is that one advises the citizens. If a member of staff sees that the person submitting an application for planning permission only has to change one tiny detail in order for the application to be approved, then the member of staff should give the applicant this recommendation. That does not sound like much, but it means a change of mentality.

The Handbook for Civic Communication is based on a project in Arnsberg. Why did its staff approach you with a view to improving their writing?

Arnsberg was already well on the way towards modernising its administration. To put it in a rather old-fashioned but accurate way, the spirit of the house was open to the linguistic side of administrative reform.
Finally, the staff realised that many handbooks existing to help public bodies draft their texts were inadequate and that they were even too basic. On the one hand, many of these handbooks had the charm of a phone book. Some, like the handbook of the Federal Administrative Court, reflect the state of the art of linguistics in the seventies. This led to the wish to write may own handbook. It was with this wish that I was approached by the city of Arnsberg.

If one wanted to introduce a language that is close to the citizens into Germany’s public bodies, what would be the greatest difficulty?

The greatest difficulty is the daily fight against new laws. So many new laws are passed without the old one being abolished. In this flood of new laws, clarity and simplicity fall by the wayside. But there also ought to be communication with citizens that is methodologically much more thorough before the legislation is made.

Do you have three brief tips on how to avoid officialese?

My first tip: Read your text aloud and look at yourself in a mirror as you do so. My second tip: Be clear about what you want to achieve before you start writing. And a third suggestion, and one that is at a different level: Before laws are made, people should talk to one another much more or hold a structured dialogue that is observed by communication scientists. We should be just as concerned about developing a modern language for administration and communication as we are about developing cars that are in global demand.

Professor Helmut Ebert; Copyright: Helmut Ebert Helmut Ebert, who was born in 1958, read German Literature, Communication Research and Psychology at the Rhenish Friedrich Wilhelm University of Bonn. He took his PhD in 1986 on the language of Martin Luther, and gained promotion to professorial status with a thesis on corporate models in 1994. Since 2004, he has been a Professor of Linguistics not holding a chair focusing on organisational communication. Helmut Ebert is also a communications consultant for business, politics and administration.

Helmut Ebert, Handbuch Bürgerkommunikation. Moderne Schreibkultur in der Verwaltung - Der Arnsberger Weg. LIT publishing house, September 2006. ISBN-Nr.:382588757x.

Antonia Loick
held the interview. She is a publicist in Cologne.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Translation: Eileen Flügel

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December 2006

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