The royal we, or majestic plural (pluralis maiestatis), is the use of a plural pronoun (or corresponding plural-inflected verb forms) to refer to a single person who is a monarch. The more general word for the use of a we, us, or our 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, in his manifesto confirming the abdication of Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich, Emperor Alexander I begins: "By the Grace of God, We, Alexander I, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias ....".
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.
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. In the grammar of several languages, 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. English used to have this feature but lost it over time, largely by the end of the 17th century.
In diplomatic letters, such as letters of credence, it is customary for monarchs to use the singular first-person (I, me, my) when writing to other monarchs, while the majestic plural is used in royal letters to a president of a republic.
In Commonwealth realms, the sovereign discharges his/her commissions to ranked military officers in the capacity of we. Many official documents published in the name of the monarch are also presented with royal we, such as letters patent, proclamation, etc.
Popes have historically used the we as part of their formal speech, for example as used in Notre charge apostolique, Mit brennender Sorge, and Non abbiamo bisogno. Since Pope John Paul II, however, the royal we has been dropped by popes in public speech, although formal documents may have retained it. Recent papal documents dispensed with the majestic plural in the original Latin are given with the singular I in their official English translations.
Several prominent epithets of the Bible describe the Jewish God in plural terms: Elohim, Adonai, and El Shaddai. Many Christian scholars, including the post-apostolic leaders and Augustine of Hippo, have seen the use of the plural and grammatically singular verb forms as support for the doctrine of the Trinity. The earliest use of this poetic device is somewhere in the 4th century AD, during the Byzintine period. Therefore, none of the authors of the books of the Bible understood the unusual grammar as a "royal we".
In the Quran, God sometimes refers to Himself as “We”. Muslim exegits and theologians teach that this is specifically when referring to His great power and majesty. They understood it similar to modern Rabbinical understanding of the majestic plural.
In Imperial China and every monarchy within its cultural orbit (including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), the majestic imperial pronoun was expressed by the character zhèn (朕) (Old Chinese: *lrəmʔ). This was in fact the former Chinese first-person singular pronoun (that is, 'I'). However, 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 deferential epithet (such as yú (愚), 'this foolish one') instead of using the former pronoun. While this practice did not impact the non-Chinese countries as much since their variants of zhèn (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 Party victory in the Chinese Civil War. In Modern Standard Mandarin, the first-person singular is wǒ (我), which gradually emerged from a common epithet expressing 'this [worthless] body'. .
In Hindustani and other North Indian languages, the majestic plural 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 (मैं, 'I') may be dispensed with altogether for self-reference, and the plural nosism used uniformly while speaking to a social inferior or superior.
- "Russian Imperial House - Manifesto of Emperor Alexander I, Confirming the Abdication of Tsesarevich and Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich and Designating Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich as Heir, 16 August 1823". www.imperialhouse.ru.
- 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
- "Politeness in Early Modern English: the second person pronouns". Northern Arizona University. Arizona Board of Regents. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
- 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.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 30 April 2011. Retrieved 28 April 2011.
- The Phrase Finder. "We are a grandmother".
- On the Trinity, New Advent, retrieved 7 February 2014
- ZDic, 《漢典》 [Chinese Dictionary]. "我". Accessed 22 August 2013. (in Chinese)
- Snell & Weightman (1989:106)