Transcript S2E5: Legal German

Here is the transcript of S1E5: Legal German. You can read more about this episode on the episode web page.

This transcript has been edited for readability.


LG = Luke Green
DG = Daniel Green


LG: By now we’ve established that German is tricky. It’s got long words, confusing grammar, and some people find it a little intimidating for that reason. The same could be said for legal language. There are big, unfamiliar words, the sentences can be hard to understand, and you can sometimes feel like it’s a different language altogether. Put the two together and you get legal German, a phenomenon in and of itself. You get certain words and formulations that come up in legal settings that you wouldn’t use in everyday contexts. For learners of German, this is an additional hurdle, but even for native German speakers, there is a very noticeable gap between the legislator and the legal subject, the everyday person, made all the larger because of the language that’s used in legal texts and settings. Today we’ll be diving into what legal language is, what legal German is like, and how it differs from everyday German. We’ll be looking at examples of language use in legal settings, as well as how language travels through the legal system here in Austria. Spoiler alert: it’s a little bit different to the UK or the US.

But just before we get into things, remember that any opinions you hear in this episode are the opinions of that speaker only. Also, especially because we’re talking about legal stuff, here’s a little disclaimer. We’ll be talking about a couple legal terms and what they mean. These meanings may be different in different legal systems, in different countries or regions, or may even change over time. We’re not trying to give any full and definitive legal definitions; we just want to point out some interesting things about the use of language. Also, nothing in this episode constitutes actual legal advice. For that, you would need to consult a legal professional for yourself. Finally, the topic of legal language is huge, so obviously we can’t cover everything. We’ll just be dipping our toes into some interesting aspects of legal German. So with all that out of the way, let’s crack on with the show.

[Theme music]

This is Yellow of the Egg, the podcast where we read the German language its rights. I’m Luke Green, and this is series 2 episode 5, Legal German.

[Theme music]

DG: Legal German can be very complex. Legal German can be very overpowering, because there are these people who use legal German to intimidate. And the legal system is not about intimidation. It is about bringing justice to the citizens.

LG: Daniel Green is a university assistant at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, and president of the Austrian Association for Legal Linguistics. This is a research association focusing on language and the law. When looking at legal German, or legal language in general, it’s important to bear in mind that there is no one variety that is ‘legal German’.

DG: So, we have all these different types of legal genres, and these legal genres differ. You know, you might not even believe it, but when you look at the world of law, the world of legislation, like in the real world, we have different continents; we have different areas of law. And then on these different continents, we have countries, we have sub-areas of law. And with the sub-areas of law, we have cities, and we have islands, and we have all this geography of the legal linguistic landscape, or whatever you want to call it. And what do I mean by all this geography? I mean that different areas in the world of law and legislation, that these different areas adopt similar but different meanings to the same ideas.

LG: So what might be defined in a certain way in one domain might have a different definition in another. More on this a little later. We’re used to words having multiple meanings. You don’t need to look any further than the German word bitte, which can mean ‘please’, ‘you’re welcome’, ‘here you go’, ‘pardon’, ‘after you’, the list goes on and on. When it comes to the law, things are admittedly a little more high-stakes. But just as we are born into a language community and we have to get used to how things are done in that language community, it’s the same with the legal world and the language of the law. We’re not born into a world with a finished product of a language, rather meanings are being negotiated and are shifting all the time. And we all have to deal with that.

DG: It's pretty much like you walk into a bar, and you suddenly become part of a big conversation. And that’s how you yourself are brought into the world, how you're brought into the normative space. By birth, you're born, and you're suddenly part of a massive conversation. And people tell you what to do, and they tell you what not to do and they tell you that you will be punished if you don't behave.

LG: This is why it’s important for the everyday person to get to grips with at least some key features and terms within legal language, because we all find ourselves within a legal system and have to adhere to it. The good news is that legal language is not a foreign language as such. If we take German, legal German is not a whole different language to everyday German. It’s still the same overall language system. There are shared words, shared grammar, and so on. Which would make you think that if you’re proficient in German, you’re going to be ok with legal German. And to a certain extent, sure. But this also means that there’s plenty of room for misunderstandings, precisely due to this overlap.

DG: Because legal language actually shares a lot of features of everyday language. And that's sort of the paradox that we see the danger for the public, as such, for everyone out there, is not so much words they don't understand at all, because those words you would look up, or you would talk to a lawyer, you would talk to someone and say, “I've got this word, I don't understand it. I don't know what it means”. But the real danger is if words look very similar or the same, and then people think they understand what it means, but in fact, it has a very, very different meaning in legal communication.

LG: This is a very important point. Words that are familiar to us can be deceptive. We can think we know what they mean, but in a legal sense they can have a slightly different or a more specific meaning, or even multiple meanings depending on the area of law. Take, for example, the word Schaden, ‘damage’.

DG: Schaden is an interesting one, because it's different. It just adopts a different kind of meaning. When we look at the general purpose of two key areas of legal practice, that's criminal law on the one hand, and then we have the Schadenersatzrecht. So, when we look at two different areas, and compare the use of the word Schaden, we have, for instance, Schadenersatz, ‘damages’, which is a typical example of Austrian private law, and then we have Schaden, in the sense of criminal law.

LG: Schaden can refer to real, physical damage to something. It can also refer to when some kind of financial disadvantage is caused, among a bunch of other, more specific meanings. This is similar to the English word damage, where for example we have physical damage, Schaden, and damages, Schadenersatz. Just a quick little sidenote about the word Schadenersatz. You might see this word in different forms. You might see Schadenersatz, so Schaden plus Ersatz, but you might also see Schadensersatz, with an <s> between Schaden- and -ersatz. There is no real difference between the two, and the Duden recognises both forms of the word to be valid, but in Austria you usually only see Schadenersatz without the <s>, whereas in the German Civil Code, the <s> is there. But back to the meaning of the word itself. The Austrian Civil Code sheds some light on this.

DG: In article 1295, it says: “Jedermann ist berechtigt, von dem Beschädiger den Ersatz des Schadens, welchen dieser ihm aus Verschulden zugefügt hat, zu fordern. Der Schade mag durch Übertretung einer Vertragspflicht oder ohne Beziehung auf einen Vertrag verursacht worden sein.”[1] So, here, we have a definition, that if, for whatever reason, some kind of damage has occurred, then that person can on the one hand because of a contractual obligation, or for another reason, claim damages, ask for compensation for it.

LG: There’s another key word in this passage, though, and one that shares a resemblance to another word you might have seen in a legal context. Here we’re talking about culpability – if something was someone’s fault.

DG: That's an interesting one, that article uses the word Verschulden, ‘fault’. In criminal law, we have a different concept, we have Schuld.

LG: Hmm. Schuld, Verschulden, tomato, tomato… right?

DG: All you do, basically, in criminal law is to determine whether or not someone has engaged in a criminal activity. So, you're looking at the question of guilt, whether someone was at fault, and then you decide, if that one is settled, how this person should be punished, and should this person be punished?

LG: That’s a key difference. Aside from the fact that you refer to Verschulden in civil law and Schuld in criminal law, you refer to Schuld when talking about if someone should be punished, whereas with Verschulden this is not the case, at least in Germany. But if we’re being honest, the word Verschulden isn’t really that relevant in day-to-day life. You will definitely hear Schuld, for instance as an adjective like in du bist schuld, ‘it’s your fault’, but Verschulden? There are certain words, phrases and formulations that you might only find in legal settings. They would sound a little odd in everyday conversations. Imagine you damage someone’s property, you smash their car window or something. The way you would talk about whether or not you did it intentionally would be different depending on whether it’s a legal setting or not.

DG: In everyday discourse, you would probably not say, you know, when you say, “you've done this intentionally”, you're unlikely to say, which is the legal definition, “du hast das mit dem Vorsatz gemacht”. Or you wouldn't say something like, “du hast das Verhalten für ernstlich möglich gehalten und dich damit abgefunden”, which would be the definition of intent in Austrian criminal law.

LG: Difficult to translate because it’s such a set phrase. It essentially means ‘you considered this behaviour to be a serious possibility and you accepted this’. Which you probably wouldn’t say in everyday language.

DG: No, you wouldn't say that. You wouldn't say that. You would probably say, “well, you've done that on purpose, you know? You've done it, like, absichtlich, du hast das absichtlich gemacht”. Sort of, you know, expressing this spite, you know? You did it, and you knew it wasn't good and you did it anyway.

LG: Absichtlich means ‘deliberately’ or ‘on purpose’, and you’d be much more likely to hear this in day-to-day life than vorsätzlich or Du hast das Verhalten für ernstlich möglich gehalten und dich damit abgefunden. For the layperson, these expressions can be considered pretty much synonymous. But in a legal sense, these expressions don’t actually mean the same thing. In criminal law, the idea of intent is obviously a crucial one, and various levels of intent need to be differentiated.

DG: Vorsatz, vorsätzlich, Absicht, absichtlich. They might be similar because they both belong to the area of criminal law. But vorsätzlich and absichtlich have different meanings.

LG: If you run Vorsatz and Absicht through a translator, you often get the same translations: ‘purpose’, ‘intention’, this sort of thing. In criminal law, Vorsatz is the broader term of the two, simply referring to the will of a person to do a certain thing. If you wanted to break that car window or wanted to do something which would cause the car window to break, then you did it with mit Vorsatz. Absicht, on the other hand, is the strongest kind of Vorsatz. It’s when you do the thing that you absolutely set out to do. You go to that car with the objective of smashing the windows, and you do it. Then there is direkter Vorsatz, where you know for sure that your actions will lead to the car’s window being smashed in, even if this isn’t what you went to the car for. And then you have Eventualvorsatz, where you do something knowing that it’s possible that you might smash the car’s window, and you do it anyway. This is where the phrase comes into play: etwas für ernstlich möglich halten und sich damit abfinden. All of this is according to the legal system in Germany, and there are slight differences if you look at other legal systems like the one in Austria. I’ll put some links in the shownotes if you want to read up on this. The words Vorsatz and Absicht are not interchangeable in a legal setting. But outside of a legal setting, there isn’t usually a conscious distinction between them.

DG: So, when we look at the use of words, such as vorsätzlich, you know, Vorsatz. So, the question of intentionality. Was it or was it not intentional, what that person did? Then we need to look very closely at who uses the term, to what end? So, is it a judge using these terms, you know, vorsätzlich, so ‘intentional’. Wissentlich, ‘with knowledge’. Do we have a legal professional here who needs to make a legal evaluation of the facts of the case? Or have we got a journalist whose aim is a very different one, and that aim is to report on events as they occurred in the past?

LG: If we think about it like this, we see it’s not necessarily true that words like Absicht and Vorsatz have certain, fixed, and separate meanings, but rather they adopt certain meanings when used in a specific context. They have their everyday meanings, which are nearly synonymous, and they have their legal meanings, where there is more of a distinction.

DG: I guess the moment you enter the world of law, of legislation, you really become part of a different area of life. These terms adopt a very specific legal meaning, as opposed to the conventional meaning.

LG: Another example of where a word has a rather different meaning in a legal sense is the word grundsätzlich, which means ‘in principle’, among other things. In the world of law, grundsätzlich refers to a rule with specific exceptions. So you could have something like Alle Beteiligten sind grundsätzlich verpflichtet, einen Unkostenbeitrag zu leisten, which means ‘everyone involved is, in principle, required to provide a contribution towards expenses’, whereby this grundsätzlich in a legal sense would mean that there are cases where there are exceptions. In everyday language, grundsätzlich can have this meaning too, but especially in Germany, it actually rather has the meaning of ‘this is the rule, no exceptions’. For instance, etwas grundsätzlich ablehnen, ‘to categorically refuse something’ – no exceptions. That’s quite an important difference, and one that’s, confusingly, not just dependent on whether or not it’s used in a legal setting.

DG: So what does it mean when you use the word grundsätzlich? When you say, “ich habe grundsätzlich schon Interesse”, what does little word, the grundsätzlich, do? So, what's the change of meaning? We have regional differences, regional differences between Germany and Austria. We have social differences. Different social groups use language differently.

LG: This is very important to consider when it comes to people giving statements at a police station. A word might be meant in a certain way when it’s said by someone from Germany, but differently when it’s said by someone from Austria, or Switzerland. Or it doesn’t even have to be countries. It could be down to differences in region, in age, in education, or even the person’s individual idiolect. If a person says grundsätzlich in a police interrogation, for instance, this may be in need of clarification. That is, if it’s even picked up on. There’s every chance this word might be missed. And who would know, since the way verbal statements are captured during police questioning is very different in Austria to how it is in say the UK or the US.

DG: If we look at the practice in the UK, as an example. In the UK, police interviews are recorded. And this is a crucial difference. In Austria, the majority of police interviews are not recorded. And I'm very critical of this. I do believe that we need recordings of police interviews, simply for reasons of legal traceability. We need to be able to trace what people actually said. And if there is someone in court who claims, “I did not say that” or “I did not say it like that”, there is no way of knowing what people actually said.

LG: Which begs the question: how can what is said during questioning be used and referred to later on down the line, if it’s not even recorded?

DG: What we do have is so-called Resümeeprotokolle. So, we do have a written report of what people said in police interviews. But then, usually, this is not the wording of the defendant, or in that case, the suspect. So we don't have the suspect's own words. What we do have is the interviewer’s paraphrasing of what the person said.

LG: This means that individual words are likely to be left out or changed. What we’re left with is not the interviewee’s words, but the words of the police officer. Which means that those doing the interviewing actually have a lot of power to decide what language material is kept, what is changed, and what is discarded.

DG: And I believe it is important to keep in mind, the majority of interviewers, police officers, in most cases, they are completely dutiful and responsible human beings that just serve the criminal justice system. I think this is important to maintain. But then, there might be cases, individual cases, where racism plays a role, where classism plays a role. There may be cases where gender discrimination plays a role. And from that perspective, it's important to also consider the power that's in the legal system.

LG: And we can’t forget that many cases don’t end with police questioning. These statements can then be drawn on if the case is taken further.

DG: In criminal law, language travels from police interviews to the courts. From the court of first instance to the court of second instance. Language travels from one stop to the next. It changes shape, you know. Language is a shape shifter.

LG: This is all not to undermine the legal system here by any means. But we do need to be aware that the language material we’re left with in the later stages of criminal proceedings is often quite different to what was actually said during initial questioning. Let’s stay with these police interviews for the moment, where a police officer paraphrases what the interviewee says. If you look carefully at the words that are used in a Resümeeprotokoll, you can often tell that you’re not reading the words of the interviewee, but those of a person who works in the field of law. You might see some words and phrases that a layperson would likely never use.

DG: I'm actually working on this at the moment, as part of my PhD project, and I'm looking at all these suspect statements. And I see how adverbs are used, you know, adverbs such as glaublich.

LG: Most people are unlikely to ever say glaublich, many might not know what it means, some might not have even heard of it before. And that’s those who speak German as a first language, let alone second-language speakers or learners of German.

DG: It's an interesting one. I didn't know the word before I encountered it. And I must say, if someone asks me, “so what does the word mean?”, then I can only answer in terms of the social context of a police interview: I don’t know. And the reason why I'm saying, “I don't know”, and not just look it up in the dictionary and give you the dictionary explanation, the dictionary definition, is because the form of the word never reproduces exactly the way it was used in the police interview. So, when we have a word like glaublich, you know, it sounds a bit like ‘it is to be believed’, ‘it is believed that’, mmm, captures this meaning of stating something but still not being sure. This is very unlikely to be used by the everyday person out there.

LG: And yet there it is in the suspect statement, despite it not ever having been uttered by the suspect. And it’s one of those words that, even if you have heard of it before, it might not be the first word you go to in the stress of the moment when being questioned as a suspect or a witness, especially if you’re giving your statement soon after the incident.

DG: Someone who's driving their bicycle to a park and then has an accident somewhere on the road, and then, you know, it's just very unlikely. I'm not saying it's impossible. What I'm saying is, it's very unlikely that that person is standing up there right after the accident and says, “Ich habe um 14 Uhr meine Wohnung verlassen und bin danach glaublich um 14:30 Uhr bei meiner Schwester gewesen, unmittelbar bevor der Unfall passiert ist.” Something like this. You know? This is extremely unlikely to happen like that because people will probably be far too nervous, when the police then questions them and asks them, “So, where are you? Were you on the road? Were you on the left? Were you on the right? What happened?” So there is a lot of stuff going on.

LG: What would someone be likely to say if not glaublich?

DG: That, of course, depends on the speech community. If you ask me personally, I would just say, “ich glaub’”. I would just say, if you ask me in German, and you were the police interviewer and I was a witness to a car accident or something, and they ask me, “so did you see the car? Haben Sie gesehen, wie das Auto in den PKW hineingefahren ist?”, then I would say something like, “naja, also gesehen hab ich‘s nicht, aber ich glaub’, ich glaub’, ich glaub’ schon, dass das das schwarze Auto war”, or something like that.

LG: For some it might seem ludicrous that a person would be able to give a statement but their words are substituted to the point where it doesn’t even sound like them anymore. Then again, we have to consider what the real purpose of these interviews is.

DG: The question really is, what should a police interview capture? Should it just be a very general overview of what people said? Or should it be a really, really accurate representation of every single thing that happened?

LG: Should a police interview capture, for instance, emotions? This is something that might not necessarily be written down, at the discretion of the person writing the notes.

DG: It's very different if, in a police report, someone says, “I really regret this”, or “I didn't mean to”, and the person is sitting there crying, absolutely devastated at the death of someone, or that person is smiling, actually happy about it, but just, you know, expresses regret because they know that they're not being recorded and they just want to make sure it's in the files. So, yeah. A lot of things such as emotions are not recorded. A lot of things such as context is not recorded. It really depends on the person who conducts the police interview which aspects are recorded and which aspects are not recorded.

LG: There has been strong criticism against the fact that police interviews are not recorded as a rule, and the fact that some words are basically put into the interviewees’ mouths. As Daniel said before, this is not to imply that police officers are routinely and deliberately altering what people say, that’s not the point here. But it can’t be denied that the current way of compiling statements in Austria lacks transparency. There have been calls for change, but change is slow at the best of times. But when it comes to established legal systems, it’s very difficult. We’ve talked a lot on the podcast about topics to do with gender representation, and how there has been change in the right direction, but it’s generally not been the fastest. Accurate and fair gender representation in German is tough, but in legal settings and legal texts, it’s another kettle of fish.

DG: Generally, the system here in Austria is very conservative. When we look at the use of big strong nouns, you know, we have Richter, we have Staatsanwalt, we have Verteidiger. Now, if I think back to my own internship with the prosecution service here in Vienna, well, I wasn't under the supervision of a Staatsanwalt, I was under the supervision of a Staatsanwältin. And I don't see any point whatsoever for people to insist on the male form.

LG: Which many people do. Enter the generic masculine.

DG: It is a form of discrimination to insist on the male form, even though the female form, in that case Staatsanwältin, would not just be appropriate but actually a necessity to refer to the correct facts of the employment. And I’m very glad that here in Vienna, there is much more sensitivity towards these things.

LG: In previous episodes we’ve talked about the ways of addressing people in polite, formal speech or writing, and how this usually comes with gendered titles.

DG: So words such as Herr, Frau, and this is interesting, the word Fräulein, which is also used, Fräulein, you know? It’s actually in the provisions of how the courts should deal with human beings.

LG: Fräulein hasn’t been a thing for a long time. This title was abolished in public services in Austria almost 100 years ago. It’s seen by many as derogatory, demeaning or simply impolite. But still, according to article 52 of the Geschäftsordnung für die Gerichte I. und II. Instanz, still in effect today, it is written that the titles Herr, Frau and Fräulein are to be used in verbal and written communication with the parties. If you want to read this for yourself, I’ll put the link on the website [click here]. But even if we take away the problem with Fräulein, we still have Herr and Frau, which as we’ve established before, doesn’t leave room for anyone outside the binary. It’s one thing to be invisible in everyday language, but the language of the law has another level of shaping how we think.

DG: Legal language doesn't just tell us what to do, now in the sense of law and conduct, what should I do? But legal language co-communicates the illusion that it describes the world. It describes the world. What is the world like? We have Herr, we have Frau, we have Fräulein. We don't have a third gender. We don't have ‘diverse’. We don't have ‘other’. We don’t have any other gender category available. We have Herr, we have Frau, and we have Fräulein. And that is, of course, something that should be criticized.

LG: There is obviously work to be done in this respect. Just as there is in generally making legal language more accessible to the everyday person. We’ve heard that there are terms that have different meanings in different areas of the law, or different meanings in legal settings and everyday settings, and this isn’t easy for the layperson to deal with. But on top of that, everyone knows that the syntax of a legal text is usually quite complex, and that German syntax in general is, well, complex. So legal German syntax – you would be forgiven for finding it very difficult to understand. Listen to this sentence, taken from article 52 of the same GeschäftsordnungVerkehr mit Parteien:

DG: “Im dienstlichen Verkehr mit Parteien sind die Formen der gebotenen Höflichkeit zu wahren; den Parteien ist mit Ruhe zu begegnen und innerhalb der zulässigen Grenzen; soweit es die Rücksicht auf die Rechte anderer Parteien gestattet, hilfsbereit entgegenzukommen; der Geschäftsgang ist derart zu gestalten, daß nach Möglichkeit den Bedürfnissen der Parteien und der Wirtschaft Rechnung getragen wird”[2]

LG: Yup, that’s one sentence. To be fair, it’s got a bunch of semi-colons, so you can break it down into smaller, sentence-like chunks, but it’s still a lot to take in, especially for people whose first language isn’t German.

DG: German is, for instance, very well-known for its run-on sentences. Here in Austria, on the one hand, we have legal rules that the legal system has to communicate clearly, that legal norms have to be expressed in an understandable manner. They have to be intelligible. Well, because if you don't understand the law, how can you abide by it? So, how can law-abiding citizens know they're actually abiding by the law? And here we do have a lot of work to do in Austria.

LG: The topic of making German more understandable is going to be dealt with a bit more in an upcoming episode, so we won’t go into it now. But making legal language accessible is becoming more and more of a priority among people in the field of legal linguistics. It’s one of the objectives being worked towards by some members of the Austrian Association for Legal Linguistics, for example. But we can’t just wait for the law to become easier to understand. It’s more important than ever to be proactive about getting informed.

DG: If there is one thing, one piece of advice is to keep in mind, you're learning actual hands-on stuff. Law is hands-on stuff. You're learning stuff about the world, and language is a key to this very specific area. And as Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach said, “Wer nichts weiß, muss alles glauben”.

LG: ‘Those who don’t know anything must believe everything’.

DG: So, if you don't know about the meaning of a certain legal phrase, in a certain legal context, you just need to believe what others tell you.

LG: This is why it’s so important to make legal language accessible and understandable. Not to turn everyone into lawyers, but to allow people to be more aware of the laws they’re subject to. At the end of the day, even those who don’t speak German as their first language are subject to German-language laws in countries such as Austria and Germany. There’s work being done in this area, for example by scholars and researchers in the Austrian Association for Legal Linguistics, but there’s still a way to go.

[Theme music]

Thank you so much to Daniel Green for joining me for this episode. You can find out more about him and his work by going to his website,, link is in the shownotes. You can also go to the podcast website,, where I’ll put some information about his research and some publications of his. For example, he’s one of the authors of a book called Die Datenschutzerklärung: Compliance in klarer und einfacher Sprache, where he analyses privacy policies and gives advice on how companies can make their privacy policies clearer and more understandable.

And, excitingly, there is another book coming out very soon. It’s the first edited volume of the Austrian Association for Legal Linguistics, and it’s edited by Daniel and myself. It’s called Contemporary Approaches to Legal Linguistics and contains articles in English and in German about different topics to do with law and language. Keep your eye out for that, I’ll post it on Instagram when the time comes.

And finally, if you want to know more about the Austrian Association for Legal Linguistics, you can go to their website,, or follow them on Instagram, @oegrl. If you’re wondering what those letters mean, it comes from the German name of the association, Österreichische Gesellschaft für Rechtslinguistik. Again, everything will be in the shownotes and on the website.

All that’s left to say is: please follow me on Instagram, @yotepodcast, that’s Y-O-T-E-Podcast, Facebook @yellowoftheegg, and my email address is To support the podcast further and to get access to some behind the scenes bits and bobs, you can become a patron at If you can’t afford to pledge, that’s absolutely fine, I’d be super-duper grateful for a five-star rating and review, and of course for recommendations of the podcast to friends, family, colleagues, pets, everyone.

So with all that being said, thank you so much for listening. Playing us out this series are Euphoniques, this time with “One Single Lie”. Check them out on Spotify, links in the shownotes. Enjoy the song, and I’ll see you in the next episode. Machts es gut, servus aus Wien.

[Music: “One Single Lie” by Euphoniques]



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