Legal terminology

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The legal jargon or legal terminology , commonly known as jurists German, German Office or legalese called, is in the law common terminology and Research Objects of Legal Linguistics . It is one of the earliest technical languages ​​that has been intensively studied since the 19th century.


Law itself can only be expressed through language . Therefore, in particular, plays hermeneutics an important role as a legal method input in the teaching of law has found.

The efficiency of the legal system also depends on the language. In order to take into account the enormous demands on complexity and precision, a calculus-like technical language is required , which therefore often seems difficult or incomprehensible for laypeople with no legal knowledge . This is particularly clear in German law. Civil law, with the BGB as a central source, is characterized by a high degree of abstraction , which provides a solution for a large number of different specific legal questions for those with legal knowledge. The legal layperson often cannot grasp this precisely because of the degree of abstraction and the special technical language. Legal terms are also used colloquially, but often with different meanings than those used by professional users of law.


The use of legal terminology can be illustrated using the communication model. The basis of this is the so-called communication triangle : A speaker (legislator, judge, ...) sends a message (law, judgment, ...) to a recipient (citizen, accused, ...). This is initially a one-way communication , in which, however, there is the possibility of dialogue , in which the recipient reacts to the message. The legal jargon takes place orally mainly in courts and in (administrative) institutions. It is different in written form: Here it is used not only in standard texts (such as legal texts , ordinances ), court decisions ( decisions , judgments ), administrative decisions and scientific texts from commentary and other legal literature, but also in the everyday life of every citizen. Examples of this are all areas of social action and social institutions that are covered by legal rules in the broadest sense, such as parties or associations (contracts, ...). According to Roelcke, legal jargon is used wherever there is a need to apply results: in legislation , case law and public administration .


Since the legal technical language is a practical language or institutional language , it is characterized by an increased proportion of technical terms , a strict regulation of the sentence structure and a weak use of artificial symbols. Since legal terminology has different addressees and is also aimed at non-lawyers, it is subject to the following three commandments:

This can be seen in the unadorned use of generalizing and typifying terms, pale verbs and an emphatically factual and sober style. In order to cover the variety of laws and legal cases, the legal language does not use casuistic formulas , but rather general expressions.

The desire for a concise, factual legal jargon leads to a strong nominalization of activity words, which in turn leads to an increased use of adjectives (not adverbs ). Regardless of the terminology used, many lawyers and (even more) judicial authorities avoid the words “I” and “we”, mostly through passive constructions.

The following linguistic phenomena are also increasingly used in legal terminology:

In addition, specific plural forms and the use of indefinite legal terms (e.g. public concerns ) are noticeable. The latter should serve the objectivity of legal terminology.

Especially in the written form of legal jargon, long sentences are found, usually compound sentences or so-called "nesting sentences ".

Another feature of legal terminology is the content-related "overload" due to the high degree of compression of abstract information. Occasionally, the legal jargon overlaps with the colloquial language , namely when central legal expressions such as “violence” or “contradiction” are also everyday words . Legal terminology also includes legal terms that have different meanings depending on the legal context (e.g. negligence in civil law does not match the meaning in criminal law). Last but not least, the legal jargon is characterized by formalities that are intended to confirm an impeccable procedure of the legal act, such as certain expressions or fixed formulas (e.g. in the name of the people ).

Deviations from the standard language

In addition to technical terms and characteristic phrases, some terms are used differently in legal terminology than in standard language.


  • The words and and or denote concepts from logic , then connects the factual situation with the legal consequence (see also: syllogism ). Phrases " is with A punished," " has to be made B" point to the principle of legality out can often mean the opportunity principle ( discretion ) applies is usually the fiction : all not unlike the common usage. Legal expert systems (computers) are interesting in this context .
  • basically means in legal terms the principle here in the meaning of the principle , generally (exceptions are possible), while in the vernacular rather to mean always , on principle is used (no exceptions). This is usually always found in German laws and regularly in case law . In the other legal language (judgments, commentary literature, literature) the opposite term is general , which means that no exceptions are possible.
  • regularly is understood in the narrower sense of the word as following the rule (if no exception applies), in colloquial language rather as recurring evenly over time or more frequently ; Example: "This circumstance in itself justified regularly no liability."
  • Subject to the establishment of hierarchies and systematics within existing regulations (= this provision is withdrawn), but is rarely found in everyday language. Similarly different (= this regulation takes precedence), here one says in everyday life anyway .
  • From a legal point of view, possession is the actual control of a person over a thing and thus has to be distinguished from property . The latter represents comprehensive rule over the thing, i.e. its legal assignment. You don't have to own something to be the owner ( example : if I have rented a car, I own it for the rental period, but I “don't own it”, so I am not the owner). Colloquial language does not sharply separate these terms, but uses them largely synonymously. This is probably also related to the fact that the German verb for property , own , has almost disappeared from everyday language (and practically only in word shipowner occurs), so have of saying economic reasons as owners of something to be used (in contrast to English : ownership for property and possession for possession ). In simple formulations and spoken language, however, only having is used.
  • Immediately is legally understood as without culpable hesitation ( legal definition according to § 121 BGB), which can also mean a reaction time of several days; in colloquial language it isunderstoodmore immediately .
  • If there is imminent danger , it means that the danger is imminent (i.e. delay), i.e. urgent action is required, while colloquial language understands this phrase more generally as imminent danger , danger imminent .
  • Borrowing is by § 598 BGB defined as follows: "The loan agreement, the lender is committed to a cause, to allow the borrower to use the goods free of charge." In common usage, but also transfer of the use upon payment of a cash consideration are (car rental, ski rental, etc.) referred to as a "loan", although it is legally a rental. Even “borrowing” two eggs from a neighbor is not a loan, but rather a loan in kind - when borrowing you always have to return exactly the thing that you borrowed, see § 604 BGB; this is impossible after the eggs have been consumed.
  • forfeit (in relation to a penalty ) means that someone is to be sentenced to a penalty by law; the colloquial language formulates: " get a penalty " or similar. Colloquial language (and in the legal language "forfeit rights" ) means "forfeit", if it is used at all, the exact opposite, namely "to lose (the right to something)": the thief forfeited (colloquially) up to five years of his liberty, (legal) up to five years freedom penalty . Similarly, in civil law, someone can forfeit a claim that he has against another, i.e. H. honestly no longer enforce.
  • In the languageof lawyers, cheap iscomparableto appropriate , while in everyday language this means cheap or primitive ("cheap copy").
  • In fact means that a circumstance is based on factual circumstances (facts). In most cases, the contrast to legal circumstances is presented (see e.g. Section 25, Subsection 5, Residence Act ). In colloquial language, however, “actually” is often equated with really or actually .
  • The justification of a legal relationship is not - as in everyday language - its justification, but its beginning .

Situation in Austria

As in Germany, there are sometimes serious differences between the standard language and legal terminology. In Austria, for example, the floating word "s" between compound words is often omitted in technical terminology (ie compensation instead of compensation ; compensation for pain instead of compensation for pain and suffering ). As a rule, in legal language and the associated interpretation of laws, in contrast to everyday language, a strict distinction is made between and and or , and therefore only has the meaning of both - and , or is only to be used in the sense of either - or . In Austrian legal language, indispensable means that a more favorable regulation (e.g. in favor of the employee) is permissible, while in everyday language it excludes any other regulation.

Since the ABGB , the central law of civil law in Austria, dates from 1811, the language used in it is partly out of date, despite numerous novellas.

Situation in Switzerland

In Switzerland, too, the legal jargon differs from everyday language. The peculiarities of legal terminology consist in their

  • Abstractness :

“Whoever is the owner of a thing can dispose of it at will within the limits of the legal system” (Art. 641 Para. 1 ZGB). Legal regulations should always cover a whole group of cases. The case report is largely overcome in today's legislation. Instead, the legislature deliberately assumes that a legal order must always and inevitably remain incomplete, formulate the regulations abstractly and rely on the ability of the courts with regard to the appropriate application in individual cases.

  • Simplicity, sobriety :

Precision and logic take precedence over elegance and aesthetics. This should result in clear and unambiguous texts.

  • Concise or exhaustive :

Laws are usually limited to the most important things, not least in the service of clarity. Sometimes, however, they also show a considerable level of detail; This is mostly the case in areas of law where the principle of private autonomy does not prevail and which the state has largely regulated through mandatory law to protect individuals or the general public. Contracts, in particular, tend to be exhaustive in order to regulate all possible contingencies.

  • Technicity :

Above all, special laws that deal with technical matters and are primarily aimed at experts and specialized authorities are often highly technical.

  • Need for interpretation of technical terms :

The legal language often consists of using legal terms, the meaning of which sometimes does not or only partially corresponds to everyday language usage. If the law does not use any legal definitions , their meaning must first be understood by interpreting the legal text.

  • Ambiguity of terms in various areas of law :

A peculiarity of legal language is that one and the same designation can have a different meaning depending on the legal area or context (in Switzerland as in Germany, the word “debt” has a different content in the law of obligations and in criminal law).

  • Latin words and phrases :

In Swiss legal language, too, one often comes across Latin words and expressions because of the influence of Roman law on today's legal system.


Legal jargon is often seen as incomprehensible or confusing by many legal laypersons. There are several reasons for this; On the one hand, the legal terminology is simply unfamiliar, on the other hand, outdated language usage has persisted for a long time (many important German laws such as the BGB date from around 1900).

While laypeople often attach great importance to the wording of the law, for lawyers it is just one of several methods of interpretation.

Legal terminology is more present in everyday life than, say, mathematical or scientific terminology. This makes it closer to colloquial language . This leads to the fact that laypersons think they understand a phrase or a norm because they know the phrases used, but not their technical meaning. This phenomenon occurs less often in other technical languages, because many of their terms are completely unknown in colloquial language and are directly recognized as "incomprehensible" by the reader.

Like any technical language, legal language fulfills the purpose of giving clear, unambiguous and unambiguous instructions to the target group. Due to the influences of European law and international business law, there are also English terms in legal terminology.

The sense of many related laws can also be reduced to the following formula:

  • Unjust laws are simple: “You shall not kill; Death to the murderer ”.
  • Just laws, on the other hand, are complicated because they have to put into perspective - “You should not kill, except in self-defense , otherwise you will be punished unless you are a child or drunk , then you will go to prison for a few years, depending on whether you are emotionally or with insidiousness acted ... "

Legal language is a subject of discussion about the generic masculine . Around 1988 the Federal Ministry of Justice (BJM) began to deal with the issue. It is discussed in the manual on legal formality published by the BMJ .

See also



  • Bernd Jeand'Heur: The newer technical language of legal science since the middle of the 19th century with special consideration of constitutional law and legal methodology . In: Scientific technical languages ​​of German in the 19th and 20th centuries . Rostock 1998.
  • Dietrich Busse: Text types in the field of law and justice. In: Gerd Antos, Klaus Brinker, Wolfgang Heinemann, Sven F. Sager (eds.): Text and conversation linguistics. An international handbook of contemporary research . de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2000.
  • Nikolaus Benke, Franz-Stefan Meissel: Legal Latin. 2,800 Latin technical terms and expressions of the legal language translated and explained . 3. Edition. Manz, Vienna 2009, ISBN 978-3-214-09698-4 .
  • Eva Engelken: Plain text for lawyers. Win clients - convince the media. Comprehensible communication, both written and spoken. Linde, Vienna 2010, ISBN 978-3-7093-0320-7 .
  • Falk van Helsing: The language of lawyers. Understanding lawyers. Legal understanding. A phrasebook for those who understand law and those who want to become one! Lappan, Oldenburg 2006, ISBN 978-3-8303-3147-6 .
  • Ralf Höcker : Langenscheidt lawyer-German, German-lawyer. We get along in court. Langenscheidt, Berlin and Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-468-73212-6 .
  • Hildebert Kirchner : List of abbreviations in the legal language . 6th, completely revised and expanded edition. de Gruyter Recht, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-89949-335-1 .
  • Kent D. Lerch (Ed.): The Language of Law. Studies of the interdisciplinary working group Language of Law of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. Volume 1: Understand Right. Understandability, misunderstanding and incomprehensibility of law. De Gruyter, Berlin a. a. 2004, ISBN 3-11-018008-1 .
  • Anton Schäfer : Acronyms. Abbreviations, terms, suggested citation for the legal field in Europe with a focus on German-speaking countries . Verlag Österreich, Vienna 2008, ISBN 978-3-7046-5112-9 .
  • Michael Schmuck: German for lawyers. From swelling to clear formulations. 3. Edition. Otto Schmidt, Cologne 2011 ISBN 978-3-504-64410-9 .
  • Thomas Tinnefeld: The syntax of the 'Journal officiel'. An analysis of the technical language of law and administration in contemporary French (= foreign languages ​​in teaching and research. Volume 13). AKS, Bochum 1993, ISBN 3-925453-16-4 .
  • Tonio Walter : A little style study for lawyers . 2nd, revised edition. Beck, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-59190-7 .
  • Legal language . In: Heidelberg Academy of Sciences (Hrsg.): German legal dictionary . tape 11 , issue 3/4 (edited by Heino Speer and others). Hermann Böhlaus successor, Weimar 2004, ISBN 3-7400-0992-6 , Sp. 414-415 ( ).
  • Gerhard Struck: Technical language acquisition , linguistic training and hidden valuation in German legal training . In: Haß-Zumkehr, Ulrike (Hrsg.): Language and Law . 2002 (= 2001 yearbook of the Institute for German Language).


Web links

Wiktionary: Legal language  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Thorsten Roelcke: Technical language and technical communication . In: German lessons . tape 54 , p. 9-20 .
  2. ^ University of Zurich, Matthias Mahlmann, E-Script: Introduction to Law, Preliminary Remarks on Legal Terminology , Status: January 10, 2013
  3. Grammatical Phallus. - German laws are written in men's language. Will there soon be chairwomen, seawomen and builders? In: Der Spiegel . No. 7 , 1989 ( online ).
  4. Handbook of legal formality , see page 52 of the pdf (3rd edition 2008)