Majestic Plural or the Royal "We" (pluralis majestatis)

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Redline2200, Sep 11, 2008.

  1. Redline2200

    Redline2200 Senior Member

    Illinois, United States
    English - United States
    I have recently been searching the internet for the origin of the Majestic Plural (the tendency for royalty to refer to themselves with "we" even when only talk about one person).
    I have seen everything from the origin being traceable all the way back to the Egyptians to it came from the Romans to it originated in India.
    I know it is certainly present in other languages (French, Spanish, German, as well as many more), but does anyone know where it actually originated?
    Any thoughts or ideas?
  2. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I think that all the European versions of the royal "we" safely can be traced back to the Roman Empire, but back from there? Difficult.

    One probably would have to go back to Sumer and/or Old Egypt and even then could not be sure that it originated there. India as a source? Highly unlikely in my opinion, there were only trading connections between old Sumer and old India, most likely no diplomatic connections (or if then only very loose ones).
    And probably the royal "we" wasn't even used in Sumer; I think I remember that in Akkad (which came after Sumer) kings were used to talk about themselves in the third person singular, but firstly I am not sure of that and secondly I don't have knowledge of Semitic languages. So only a guess from me here; probably someone else has to say more.
  3. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)

    If you mean by Roman Empire Eastern Roman Empire, I agree. The usual assumption (as far as I know) is Ptolomean Egypt -> other Hellenistic courts -> Byzantine Greek -> Medieval Europe.

    From where Ptolomean Greek got it, I have no idea.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2008
  4. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I did not know that the majestic plural was already used in Ptolomean Egypt! (What about the earlier Pharaohs?)

    Wikipedia has also the following:

    It makes perfect sense to me, since a monarch often spoke in the name of his people, that he or she would come to refer to him or herself officially as "we".
  5. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    The Popes also used it (well ... I don't know about the recent ones, I guess they wouldn't - except for very formal, frozen style ceremonies) - at least they used to use it.

    My guess would be that this tradition certainly would go back to the Roman Empire (also the Western Empire) though I can't present any specific sources; but Outsider's link to Wikipedia would suggest so.

    To go back to what is printed on paper, my "Meyers grosses Lexikon in 25 Bänden" states that pluralis majestatis were invented in the Hellenistic era, or literally: "(...) an den hellenist. Höfen entstandene Sitte, dass Regierende von sich im Plural sprechen". It doesn't go further back than that.
  6. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    In the 4th century Constantinople has certainly the more important and more influential of the two courts (the other was actually in Milan and not in Rome, Wikipedia is a bit inaccurate there). If the use in the Western Empire really only started in the 4th century (which is consistent with what I remember, namely that it was not used during the Principate) then this corroborates my thesis that the habit came to Western Europe through Byzantine (or Eastern Roman, if we are speaking of the 4th century) Greek customs.

    Concerning the Pope, I think the current one uses “we” only if he speaks ex cathedra.
  7. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    That is an interesting idea. We've seen in this thread that some sources attribute the origin of the majestic plural to the Hellenistic period, and in the fourth century there was a well-known "easternization" of the Roman Empire...
  8. federicoft Senior Member

    The last pope to use the pluralis majestatis was Paul VI. John Paul I (famously) refused it, and so did its successors.
  9. Jenesaisrien Senior Member

    Buenos Aires Castellano
    As far as I know it was a common rhetorical device in Greek and Latin literature.
    Wikipedia in Italian provides the following explanation:

    "Quest'uso, già diffuso nell'antica Roma (è per esempio la forma principale usata nelle opere autobiografiche di Marco Tullio Cicerone), è rimasto nella tradizione di molti paesi come modo d'espressione formale soprattutto di sovrani e papi (da cui il nome "maiestatico"), in quanto adatto all'immagine istituzionale, e quindi anche astratta e corale, associata a questi ruoli."

    Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve’s
    Syntax of Classical Greek associates pluralis maiestatis to the Greek ὄγκος(onkos).
    According to Lucien Saucy's Grammaire Latine, pluralis maiestatis was used in Rome by government officials. This book mentions the case of Cicero, who employed alternatively the plural and singular to refer to himself in his letters depending on whether he was writing as a goverment official or as a friend of the addresee.

    This article might be interesting..unfortunately I don't have access to JSTOR
    The Plvralis Maiestatis in Homer

    Last edited: Sep 30, 2008
  10. If the earliest usage in Egypt is in Ptolomean times, then couldn't it just as easily have been introduced by Alexandrean conquest?
  11. Lugubert Senior Member

    In the Old Testament, for example
    some see a Majestic Plural, others find a reference to early Semitic polytheism, still others imagine a reference to the Holy Trinity...
  12. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Well, but to make that one count at all we would have to know to which source this version (our Christian version) goes back: the Bible - and I am definitely no expert in the field - as far as I know mainly is based on Classical Greek and Latin (at which point in history majestic plural of course already was known to be used).

    It would be interesting if Aramaic and/or Hebrew versions would show the same. Probably the Tora version (if there were an equivalent of this one in the Tora) sounds completely different, and the same might be true for Quran (again, if there's an equivalent there at all) - and in both those sources at least we could rule out polytheism.*)
    (*) Well - it still could be, in those Semitic languages, a 'fossilised' relic of polytheism, that is going back to polytheism without not being understood anymore as such, thus a reinterpretation of plural because of polytheism as a pluralis majestatis. But this is really very speculative, so we probably best forget at once that I've even written those lines down.)

    Further it would be interesting if there even is anything like a majestic plural in Semitic languages.
    (I am not sure of that at all; I only think that I have heard once or twice, or probably never, that in Akkadian the third person singular instead would have been used, as already stated in my first post in this thread - probably someone with knowledge of Semitic languages could say more here.)
  13. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    The Hebrew verb form used is Na`aSeH which is 1st person plural future of the verb `ain-sin-he (to do).
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2008
  14. Lugubert Senior Member

    Future would mean "We are going to ...". Another possible interpretation is that the form is 1st p pl, cohortative mood (a kind of 1st person imperative): "Let us ..."
  15. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Or "We shall..." But from what I understand the Hebrew future has a very broad range of uses.
  16. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    It may well be a cohortative. Indicative and cohortative forms are indistinguishable for lamed-he verbs. But it wouldn't matter anyway because the ancient Hebrew cohortative existed in both, singular and plural, i.e. the ancient Hebrew cohortative allowed the distinction between "let me" and "let us". Here is an example in the same book where YHWH uses singular cohortative: Genesis 12.3: וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ = and I will bless those who bless you, literally: and-let-me-bless blessing-thee.
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2008
  17. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    So in Hebrew God's voice*) both uses singular and (majestic) plural, if I've got it right, Bernd?
    And is there any way of being sure if the Hebrew majestic plural is Semitic in origin or probably a loan translation from Hellenistic Greek? (I don't know how much - if at all - Classical Hebrew had been influenced by Greek which for quite some time also was spoken in the region.)

    *) I'm at a loss for what form to use for the Jewish God so I'll just stick to this.
  18. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)

    I think we can safely assume that the book of Genesis is too old for that. The Torah must have been already very stable when Jewish and Samarian faiths split (because they agree on the Torah). Of my head I would say that must have been between 800-600BC.

    "YHWH" is his name, "Yah" (as in Hallelujah) is a short form. "Elohim" is a way of referring to him (grammatically a plural, meaning "gods") and "Adonai" (grammatically also a plural, literally: "My Lords", "My Sirs") is a replacement word to be pronounced instead of the unpronounceable YHWH. "Jehovah" is a misinterpretation, caused by the tradition of purposefully inserting wrong vowel sign into YHWH to prevent accidental correct pronunciation.
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2008
  19. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Sounds like very convincing evidence then - for majestic plural in Hebrew before the Hellenistic era.
    What we now would need to go even further back in history would be a specialist in Accadian language; influence in both directions (probably mainly from Accadian to Hebrew?) wouldn't be unlikely as both languages were in contact.
  20. apmoy70

    apmoy70 Senior Member

    Plutarch in his Alexander (Parallel Lives) writes that according to Onesicritus, Alexander the Great referred to himself in plural («ἡμεῖς») instead of I («ἐγώ»); but I found another historical source which claims that Romulus was the first ever who used pluralis majestatis, following the Sibylline oracle's prophecy (apologies I was able to find the prophecy in Βyzantine Greek only, in Ioannis Malalas' historiography, and not in Latin):
    «Eἰ μὴ συγκαθεσθῆ σοι ὁ ἀδελφός ἔν τῷ βασιλικῷ θρόνῳ, οὐ μὴ σταθῆ ἡ πόλις σου Ῥώμη οὔτε ἡσυχqaσῃ ὁ δῆμος» (roughly translated) "if you don't co-reign (the verb he uses is co-sit) with your brother (i.e. Remus) on the royal throne, you will not establish in your city, Rome, political and social stability". The problem of course was that his brother Remus was dead (Romulus killed him).
    Malalas then writes that Romulus made a statue of his dead brother on a throne next to him, and from then on, he ordered his subjects to refer to him by using the plural, while he also signed by using the plural in his decrees (as if he and his brother ordained together).
    Nice story, don't know if it's true.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2015
  21. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    Well, since Romulus and Remus are mythological figures and Rome was then just one of the countless fortified settlements of the northern Mediterranean, most probably this evidence is not exactly documentary ,-)
  22. Juan del Acebo

    Juan del Acebo New Member

    Cambridge, UK
    Digging a little deeper, it may be worth noting that in ancient civilisations the monarch was a symbol of the perfect man, the pontifex (bridge-maker), the perfect microcosmos; now the canonical prayers of the Abrahamic religions, as the Gayatri mantra in Hinduism (maybe somewhere else too...?) all use the first person plural: “our Father, our daily bread”, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God...”, “guide us along the straight path...”. Maybe at the origin of the pluralis maiestatis there is this notion of the perfect human being in contact with divinity representing all humanity. As if you could say that the king is the embodiment of the “us” par excellence. He is us, the plenitude of being human, no one left out... There may be something about this in Jean Hani's Sacred Royalty if I remember well.

    I hope this helps and it didn't get too other-worldly!
  23. mataripis

    mataripis Senior Member

    It is because Royal bloods received blessings or received initiations from their elder.We( who are initiated) is what this case mean.

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