The royal "we", or majestic plural (pluralis majestatis in Latin, literally, "the plural of majesty"), is the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a single person holding a high office, such as a sovereign (e.g., a monarch or sultan) or religious leader (e.g., the Pope or a bishop). The more general word for the use of we to refer to oneself is nosism.
Speakers employing the royal we refer to themselves using a grammatical number other than the singular (i.e., in plural or dual form). For example, the Basic Law of the Sultanate of Oman opens with "On the Issue of the Basic Law of the State We, Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman...".
It is commonly employed by a person of high office, such as a monarch, earl, or pope. It is also used in certain formal contexts by bishops and university rectors. William Longchamp is credited with its introduction to England in the late 12th century, following the practice of the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs. Its first recorded use was in 1169 when King Henry II, hard pressed by his barons over the Investiture Controversy, assumed the common theory of "divine right of kings", that the monarch acted conjointly with the deity. Hence, he used "we", meaning "God and I...".
In the public situations in which it is used, the monarch or other dignitary is typically speaking not only in his or her personal capacity but also in an official capacity as leader of a nation or institution. The habit of referring to a leader in the plural has further influenced the grammar of several languages, in which plural forms tend to be perceived as deferential and more polite than singular forms. This grammatical feature is common in languages that have the T-V distinction, including those, such as English, which used to have a T-V distinction in the past, but lost it.
In diplomatic letters, such as letters of credence, it is customary for monarchs to use the singular first-person when writing to other monarchs, but the majestic plural is used in royal letters to a president of a republic.
Popes have used the we as part of their formal speech with certain recent exceptions. The English translations of the documents of John Paul II dispensed with this practice, using the singular "I", even though the Latin original usually continued to use the first person plural "We".
In a 1911 letter, Daniel David Palmer, founder of chiropractic, spoke of establishing it as a religion, and placed himself on a par with other founders of religions ("Christ, Mohamed, Joseph Smith, Mrs. Eddy, Martin Luther"). In the letter he refers to himself with royal third person terminology.
Several prominent epithets of the Bible describe the Jewish God in plural terms: Elohim, Adonai, and El Shaddai. Many Christian scholars, including the likes of Augustine of Hippo, have seen the use of the plural and grammatically singular verb forms as support for the doctrine of the Trinity.
In China and every monarchy within its cultural orbit (including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), the majestic imperial pronoun was expressed by the character 朕 (Old Chinese: *lrəmʔ). This was in fact the former Chinese first-person singular pronoun (i.e., "I") but – following his unification of China the emperor Shi Huangdi arrogated it entirely for his personal use. All other speakers and writers were obliged to choose some appropriate epithet (such as 愚, "This Foolish One") instead of using the former pronoun. While this practice did not need to impact the non-Chinese countries as much since their variants of 朕 were generally imported loanwords, it nevertheless led to a polite avoidance of pronouns throughout East Asia. This still persists, except in China, following the May Fourth Movement and the Communist victory in its civil war. In Modern Standard Mandarin the first-person singular is 我, which was gradually adopted from a common epithet expressing "This [Worthless] Body".
In Hindustani, Punjabi and other North Indian languages, the pluralis maiestatis is a common way for elder speakers to refer to themselves when addressing those younger than them, and also for persons of higher social rank or caste to refer to themselves when speaking to those of a perceived inferior rank or caste. In certain communities, the singular plural I (मैं) may be dispensed with altogether for self-reference, and the nosism used uniformly while speaking to a social inferior or superior.
- Constitution of Oman
- Turner, Ralph V. (May 2007), "Longchamp, William de (d. 1197)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/16980, retrieved 12 January 2011
- The Great Roll of the Pipe for the 16th year of the reign of Henry II, Michaelmas 1169–70 E 372/16 1169 Mich-1170 Mich (printed in PRS 15, ). Pipe Roll Society. 1884. pp. 156–161. ISBN 1-286-63009-6.
- Satow, Ernest Mason (1932). A Guide to Diplomatic Practice. London: Longmans. p. 37.
In these letters the plural "We" and "Our" are employed instead of "I" and "My," and the letters terminate thus: "Your Good Friend." This form is used mainly for Royal letters to Presidents of Republics.
- D.D. Palmer's Religion of Chiropractic – Letter from D.D. Palmer to P.W. Johnson, D.C., 4 May 1911.
- The Phrase Finder. We are a grandmother
- On the Trinity, New Advent, retrieved 7 February 2014
- See: Japanese pronouns, Korean pronouns, and Vietnamese pronouns.
- Zdic. 《漢典》 [Chinese Dictionary]. "我". Accessed 22 August 2013. (Chinese)
- Snell & Weightman (1989:106)