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Word! The Language Column
German officialese: riddled with incomprehensible jargon

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Bureaucratic or even threatening: When German authorities formulate texts, they often seem intimidating to the people addressed.

By Olga Grjasnowa

German is not a neutral language, but what language is? I was prejudiced against the sound of German for a long time – after all, I grew up in a Jewish family. So after emigrating to Germany, I was surprised to discover how gentle this language can sound. German actually can be, and often is, courteous and even gentle – as long as you don't receive an official letter.

Shades of Kafka

Ever since Franz Kafka’s literary descriptions of ominous and impenetrable bureaucratic structures, if not before, we’ve been duly warned: better not mess with German bureaucracy, as any official letter goes to show. An official missive generally begins with the courteous opening “Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren” (literally “Highly esteemed Ladies and Gentlemen”, corresponding to “Dear Sir or Madam” in English) or “Sehr geehrte Frau // Herr XY” (lit. “Highly esteemed Ms // Mr XY”), but it’s immediately followed by an order to do or stop doing something. It will then spell out the consequences in case of non-compliance and the applicable provisions of law. It may close with the words “Mit freundlichen Grüßen” (lit. “With friendly regards”, corresponding to “Yours sincerely/truly/faithfully”). But those regards are not even remotely friendly, nor is the letter as a whole. When I get letters from the Berlin Senate, from the German Federal Government or from my landlord, I don’t feel I’m being addressed as a responsible grown-up, I feel like a little kid being scolded by a distant, ill-natured relative with bad breath.

Threats

Why does the German state use threats to communicate? Any given matter could be expressed in friendly terms instead. And the German language allows plenty of leeway for that. After all, people who personally address a request or inquiry to a public authority are referred to as “Kunden” (i.e. “clients”). They pay taxes and are asking a service of civil servants who are paid out of their taxes. It’s quite simple, really. Only not in Germany. Here, as in just about every country in the world, language is used as an instrument of power. A letter couched in convoluted verbiage that also sounds menacing shows clearly who calls the shots in this country – and that they have no intention of making life easy for people. This is why they hide behind incomprehensible officialese and intimidation. Which raises the question: What kind of state needs to threaten its own citizens? We are, after all, living in a democracy.

Inaccessible bureaucratic jargon

German officialese, known as “Beamtendeutsch” or affectionately  “Amtsdeutsch”, is constantly vilified for its incomprehensibility. Bureaucratic whoppers like “Ehefähigkeitszeugnis” (“certificate of marriageability”), “Gelegenheitsverkehr” (“non-scheduled services”), “Grüngutsammelplatz” (“green waste collection site”) and “Namenseinheit” (“uniformity of name”) may be lost on many a layperson. When friends ask me to read letters for them from the job centre, I have to call up a lawyer for help with the jargon. And my German really isn't that bad. So if these letters are partly inaccessible even to me, someone who’s been socialized in German for over twenty years now, how are newcomers to Germany and to the German language supposed to understand them?
 
In all fairness, the German Federal Government have taken an important step towards accessibility: most decrees can now be found in easy German versions as well on the government’s homepages. A little tweaking of the style and tone, and communication on an equal footing actually could be achieved.
 

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.

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