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What is the Royal We?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 March 2014
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The royal we, the Victorian we or in Latin pluralis majestatis is the way a person, usually a ruler, may use a plural personal pronoun to refer to him or herself. Kings and queens are most famous for the usage, and the royal we suggests that the king or queen is something more than a singular person. A common explanation is that a ruler speaks as an individual and a representative of his or her people.

Using a royal we is also known by the distinct word nosism, and it has been both lauded and criticized. Many reject the use of nosism for those not entitled to the phrase when it makes sense. Royalty as representative of a people is definitely plural, but then so are pregnant women, and as Mark Twain suggests, “people with tapeworms.” Such critics of nosism might have rejected it in writing or when a subordinate speaks as representative of those he or she truly didn’t represent. Furthermore, clearly a monarch isn’t truly representing the people when he or she announces, “We shall have our bath now.”

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This is why, in addition to speaking as a representative, the royal we indicates an individual is somehow more important than most other individuals. It can be called the singular of intensity. This is how it is interpreted when the royal we occurs in the Qu’ran. Though scholars have debated the point, most conclude that when the words of Allah refer to Allah as “we” they simply mean Allah is all and loftiest, or most high. They do not suggest a plurality of Gods, something the Islamic religion avoids and protests against. In Islam there is “no God but Allah,” and Allah alone is entitled to be “we” because his stature alone is worthy of worship.

Along with the royal we, you will find its compliment in plural pronouns. These include our, ours, and us. When a monarch is spoken of in third person, however, he or she is usually not referred to as they, or them. The form “your majesty, is more common than our majesty, unless the speaker is representing more than one speaker.

It should be noted that the plural is seldom used in present day. Even in the Victorian Period, Queen Victoria’s use in the sentence “We are not amused,” is contested as not a true plural of majesty. She was speaking of a group of women who were also not amused when she supposedly made this utterance.

You will see a number of period films where the use of the royal we is very constant. Queen Elizabeth I certainly used it, as did many Russian rulers and French rulers. Some suggest it has fallen into disuse because monarchies are simply not invested with as much power as was previously the case. Though they may be rulers, parliaments tend to make most decisions regarding a country, and people can elect members of parliament.

There is also some suggestion that the fall of the French monarchy during the French Revolution may have stopped other monarchs, who feared similar revolutions, from using the royal we. To use it to suggest loftiness over the people might inflame those who were most oppressed in a monarchic system. Thus the plural of majesty or intensity fell out of use in great part, and the places you are most likely to encounter it now is in films, teleplays or books that represent a certain distant period of time.

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anon328736
Post 9

Furthermore, clearly a monarch isn’t truly representing the people when he or she announces, “We shall have our bath now.”

A monarch will not even want or try to announces to his/her people like that. Even if he/she want to take a bath he/she will not announces it to their people because it's just simply illogical to announces it to them.

anon262359
Post 8

My own interest in the Royal we comes from a mystery about the Lord's Prayer where God is addressed as Our Father. The reason for this could be that the author of the New Testament was entitled to use the Royal we. The author I have in mind is Queen Berenice great granddaughter of Herod the Great.

anon235851
Post 7

Hmmm, yes, I do see the point of using the majestic plural when a representative speaking on behalf of many. But as to its use in a mere formal sense, I contend that we have better things to do with our time (in the first sense of the use of the majestic plural form) than to debate a form of speaking that only a tiny fraction of a part of nothingness of the humans inhabiting this earth will ever really have to deal with.

anon148431
Post 6

I get irritated at two "royal we" usages: 1) supposedly historic fiction that puts the "we" on the lips of anybody--royal or not, and usually poorly; 2) waitresses who ask "what are we having today?" or the like--to my knowledge, the waitress is not going to share my food or drink and I would be offended if she tried.

christensen
Post 5

I was just rereading "Little Women" the other day, and toward the end when the professor has come to see Jo, he asks her to call him "thou" as representative of the beautiful way Germans speak. Then I thought about Martin Buber's "I and Thou" and his distinction between Thou being personal and You being impersonal. Who says people don't pay attention to pronouns? Some of the brightest thinkers certainly did.

Armas1313
Post 4

This practice of royalty may also date back to the "divine right of kings," where royalty felt that they were either established by gods, or were gods. In addressing royalty, one faced the potential of either great reward or great punishment, and found it necessary to use the utmost respect.

FitzMaurice
Post 3

In East Asian languages there were pronouns which were only used in relation to royalty. These referred to the subject as "your servant" and to the king as "great one." Such forms of speaking have fallen into disuse since there is less of a royal presence in these nations.

Qohe1et
Post 2

In Genesis, God refers to himself as "we." This suggests a community of thinking and counsel. For a royal monarch to say "we," they could also conveying the idea that they were not of a singular authority, but were thinking in terms of the greater good, taking various details and thought patterns into account.

BioNerd
Post 1

The plural "you" became a polite and popular pronoun in many European languages. In English, it became popular to the point that we no longer distinguish between singular and plural "you." Using the plural first person, however, was considered much more high and mighty, and was therefore reserved for the royalty. It was nevertheless appropriate in its time, and conveyed a strong authority and self-respect. In our egalitarian society, this has been done away with.

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