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Understandable Laws

Unlike the Bundestag and Bundesrat, Stephanie Thieme would not have approved the title “Growth Acceleration Act” from a linguistic point of view. “The title is misleading,” explains the head of the editorial staff of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache at the German Bundestag. “One might think it only takes one law to boost the economy.” But Thieme is particularly afraid of the often used spelling “Growth Acceleration Law” – above all because it is not necessary here to “hyphenate composites that are already linked by fugues”, according to the linguist and lawyer. On behalf of the Bundestag, she checks legal texts for comprehensibility and linguistic correctness.

She prefers the term “Wachstumsbeschleunigungsgesetz” (Growth Acceleration Law), as it is now also written by the majority. It is still a word monster – but at least a grammatically correct one.

But Thieme was not able to raise all her concerns at all: The first major tax law of the black-yellow coalition, which came into force at the beginning of the year, was not available to the linguist and her two colleagues Christine Willig and Birgit Steiner. The comprehensibility check for every law that is to be discussed and passed in the Bundestag is bindingly regulated in the Bundestag’s rules of procedure.

Legislative text makes the Bundestag cheerful

Since 1966 there has been the editorial staff of the German Language Society at the German Bundestag. The reason for its foundation was a very concrete one: When a new spatial planning law was discussed at the time, phrases such as “The structure of the territory of the Federal Republic is to be developed” initially caused confusion in the plenum – then loud laughter.

Shortly afterwards, the President of the Bundestag, Eugen Gerstenmaier, set up the editorial staff of the Society for the German Language at the Bundestag. Basically a good idea, but for a long time the staff consisted of only one, at best two linguists. “That was actually nothing more than a fig leaf,” says Stephanie Thieme. So the editorial staff led a shadowy existence for a long time. Many parliamentarians did not know that such an institution existed at all.

Formulations appropriate for the addressees

This is now slowly changing – also thanks to Thieme. The 53-year-old has headed the editorial staff of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache at the Bundestag since 2002. An ideal cast: not only because Thieme is a linguist and a lawyer at the same time, which makes it easier for her to gain acceptance for her staff’s work, but also because she has a genuine passion for language.

In GDR times she worked as an editor; after the fall of communism she studied law and opened her own law firm. But some of her legal texts were also dear to her: “I often thought while I was studying law: Does it have to be so complicated linguistically,” remembers Thieme.

Of course, laws are technical texts, the subject matter is often very complex, the terminology difficult to understand. But it was not unusual for her to stumble across wrong references in sentence construction, get tangled up in overlong paragraphs, and get bogged down in the stiff nominal style of official German.

Today, as head of the editorial staff, Thieme’s credo is: Laws must be formulated in a way that is “appropriate for the addressee”. This means that if a text is mainly written by experts, it can also be formulated in a way that is appropriate for the expert. “But when it comes to regulations that directly affect citizens, such as Hartz IV, those affected must be able to understand the regulations themselves,” says the linguist.

“Grand Coalition for Understandable Laws”

It is therefore persistently endeavouring to help the editorial staff achieve greater acceptance and significance in the Bundestag. Meanwhile with some success: Especially since two parliamentarians, Lothar Binding (SPD) and Ole Schröder (CDU/CSU), joined forces in 2006 for a “Grand Coalition for Understandable Laws”.

This initiative attracted a lot of attention – and after a two-year project phase in 2007/2008 led to the creation of a separate editorial staff in the Ministry of Justice, in addition to the parliamentary editorial staff, with seven other academic staff members.

“Recommendations as needed”

This is a logical step, as the lion’s share of the laws in the ministries are finally passed. The editorial staff at the Bundestag should primarily take care of the bills that come from the middle of parliament itself.

There have also recently been innovations for this editorial staff: In July 2009, the Bundestag adopted an amendment to its rules of procedure, which now state under Section 80a: “An editorial staff set up or affiliated with the Bundestag shall, at the decision of the committee responsible, examine a bill for linguistic correctness and comprehensibility and, if necessary, make recommendations to the committee. The committee responsible may consult the editorial staff throughout the course of its deliberation and request that it examine the proposal.”

New rules in the Rules of Procedure

Thus the comprehensibility check is still not a “must”, but a “should”. Nevertheless, Thieme is pleased with the new provision: “For the first time ever, the Rules of Procedure regulate when and how the editorial staff is to be used in the parliamentary legislative process.

Up to now, linguists have had a problem: if they saw bills at all, it was often too late for them to deal with them linguistically: “Individual wordings are usually the result of lengthy negotiations. Therefore, the language test must start as early as possible. Even a tiny linguistic intervention on our part can become a problem if a language test is carried out too late,” explains Thieme. The language experts often had their hands tied.

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