Royal baloney

« previous post | next post »

Over the past couple of days, some commenters have complained of superficiality and excessive empiricism in my objections to the spreading media meme of president Obama's allegedly culpable use of first-person pronouns ("Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009; "Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme", 6/8/2009; "Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009).

So this morning, in evaluating Stanley Fish's notion that president Obama's inaugural address used the "royal we", I'll avoid any numbers greater than one. Instead, I'll use traditional humanistic methods to argue that Fish is full of it.

Prof. Fish laid out his essay's theme in its second paragraph:

I was reminded of the last scene of “Godfather I,” when Michael Corleone, who begins the film as a young idealistic patriot, ends it by striking the pose of a Roman emperor as subordinates kiss his ring. Obama is still idealistic and a patriot, but he is now also an emperor and his speech shows it. “Language,” Ben Jonson says in Discoveries, “shows a man; speak that I may see thee.”

Fish argues that before the election, Obama's speeches seemed to display a modest and diffident character, and that

This restraint and modesty also mark the victory speech delivered in Grant Park, Chicago […] When he promises, the promise is made not to the people, but on their behalf: “I promise you, we as a people will get there.” It is a short sentence, but by the end of it the self assertion of the “I” has been entirely dissipated. Repeatedly, agency and power are transferred to the audience. Change “cannot happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.” And, of course, the repeated refrain, “Yes we can.”

But after the election, everything allegedly changes:

Everything alters in the inaugural address (Jan. 20, 2009). The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. “But know America” — or, in other words, “hear me” — “…they will be met.” And later, when he says, “We will build the roads and bridges… We will restore science to its rightful place… We will harness the sun and winds,” the “we” is now the royal we: just you watch, “All this we will do.”

Now to start with, Prof. Fish must know very well that these are not literally instances of the "royal we", which the OED defines as we "Used by a single person to denote himself or herself", e,g,:

1854 THACKERAY Rose & Ring xv, [The herald]..began to read:—‘O Yes!..know all men by these presents, that we, Giglio, King of Paflagonia’ [etc.].

According to Katie Wales, Personal pronouns in present-day English (p. 64), this usage is "virtually obsolete" in the actual practice of the British monarchy, but "very much alive in the 'royalese' of satirical journalism, parody and caricature, a crude symbol of royalty, like the orb and sceptre".

Since it's preposterous to think that president Obama was promising to build roads and bridges with his own two hands, it can only be as a "crude symbol of royalty" that Fish uses the term, reinforcing the whole Michael-Corleone-as-Roman-emperor image. In other words, Fish's use of this phrase is referentially meaningless but associatively powerful. By this linguistic choice, Fish shows us something about himself: he has a flair for evocative rhetoric, and is not especially scrupulous about the literal truth of what he says. This may be because he believes that there is no such thing literal meaning, but of course it's not necessary to have a theory in order to use words for their associations rather than their substance.

So let's dismiss the "royal we" terminology as a mere rhetorical flourish, and take up the meat of Fish's analysis, the part about "promises … made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. … [J]ust you watch, 'All this we will do.'"

The interesting thing to me about this interpretation is that it's exactly the opposite of the way that I understood the same speech. And I don't say this just because Prof. Fish evokes dissent (which of course he means to do, and works hard to do, and generally succeeds in doing, at least in me).  I took notes while listening a live broadcast of the inaugural, because I had agreed to discuss the speech on PRI's The World, and I posted my notes on this weblog with a bit of  commentary ("A new era of responsibility", 1/20/2009).

Here's what I wrote:

My first impression: this was very much the speech of someone who was once a community organizer. For example:

"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents."  […]

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."  […]

"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.  Their memories are short.  For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."  […]

"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."  […]

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

"This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

That is, I heard the speech, from beginning to end, as urging all citizens to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America". This is not the "royal we", nor the "doctor we", nor the "editorial we", nor the "corporate we", nor even any other sort of exclusive we. It's the old-fashioned inclusive we of "We the people".

The speech starts with that exact phrase in its second paragraph, after the ritual nod to the previous president:

Forty-four Americans have now taken the Presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers and true to our founding documents.

And its ending evokes exactly the same spirit:

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility, a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our Nation, and the world. Duties that we do not grudgingly accept but, rather, seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed; why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The Capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our Revolution was most in doubt, the Father of our Nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world . . . that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive . . . that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end; that we did not turn back, nor did we falter. And with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

In between, I can't find a single phrase that in any way justifies Fish's description of  "promises … made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled". Can you?

Prof. Fish's theory and practice to the contrary, I persist in believing that language not only "shows a man", it also means something. Many aspects of meaning are subtle, context-dependent and contestable, but others are plain and simple, and can't be turned into their opposite by hermeneutic sleight of hand.

In this case, all of Fish's considerable rhetorical skill can't turn "We the people" into "Just you watch". Except, of course, for those who are unwise enough to take his word for it.


  1. Andrew said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    I am very uncertain that there ever really was a royal we. The Queen does not use 'we' in speeches, and I am doubtful how often her predecessors did – consider, for instance, Elizabeth I's 'I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman….' The Queen does, I believe – or certainly did quite recently – use 'we' in some official documents, such as letters of appointment to office – but so do others; bishops, for instance; or, at one time, the Foreign Secretary in passports ('We, Nathaniel Lord Curzon… require and command all to whom these presents shall come to allow to pass without let or hindrance….') So it's not really a royal we, just an official we.

    [(myl) Indeed. Katie Wales (in the book referenced above) writes that "the present queen is more likely to use the properly exclusive 'royal firm we', speaking on behalf of the royal family present and past; or the 'royal tour we', equivalent to my husband and I …"

    But apparently genuine instances "royal we" can certainly be found in writings of earlier times. Thus the OED cites

    1603 KING JAMES VI & I in T. Rymer Fœdera (1705) XVI. 538 Wee, Myndinge of our Royall and absolute Power to Us commytted, to visitt [etc.].

    1642 CHARLES I in Clarendon's Hist. Rebellion (1702) I. V. 369 In plain English, it is to take away the freedom of our Vote; which, were We but a Subject, were high Injustice, but being your king, we leave all the world to judge What it is.

    And also:

    1964 R. H. ROBINS Gen. Linguistics vii. 287 Somewhat similar is the use of the ‘royal we’; in strictly ceremonial circumstances reigning sovereigns in some countries (of which Great Britain is one) use what are otherwise first person plural pronouns in reference to themselves in their official or constitutional capacity.

    It's possible that the Royal We was always a literary convention rather than a fact of genuine royal discourse — though e.g. Clarendon's History quotes many documents, claimed to be original, in which it's used. But in any case, the established meaning of the term "royal we" is the one given in the Robins citation. ]

  2. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    We think that part of the problem is that the guru class has grown hyper-analytical during the Bush years. "What is he talking about? What does he really mean?" There was little in a Bush speech that one could take at face value.

    Obama, in contrast, is used to talking to groups (community organizer) and to using language to convey actual thought (law professor). He has not been handed a list of talking points. He is speaking not just in paragraphs, but in coherent series of paragraphs.

    Stan Fish seems to be suffering from intellectual bends. He has come from the abyss to the surface too quickly. Hang at 15 feet awhile. Let the excess gas bleed off. Get used to the surface world — it's fine up here.

    [(myl) I believe that Prof. Fish's approach to textual interpretation has been consistent over the years, in non-political contexts as well as in his (mostly more recent) political analyses. See here for discussion of a pre-W example in the philosophy of language.]

  3. dw said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    Margaret Thatcher became fond of using the "royal we" in the latter part of her premiership. The most notorious quote was "We have become a grandmother". Another was "We are in the fortunate position in Britain of being, as it were, the senior person in power." In both of these examples the use of a singular complement with "we" enhances the effect.

    Thatcher was unconstrained by term limits: Obama will, one hopes, be out of office before he has a chance to develop similar pretensions.

  4. Ryan said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    Because clearly myl's post has shown us nothing but that Obama has a secret yearning for unchecked executive power.

  5. DS said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Is there a term for "we" when used to mean not I (as in the royal we) but you? I say to my one-year-old at the breakfast table, "Oh, let us have some cereal, yes, we need to eat a nice breakfast," by which I mean not us or we but you.

    [(myl) No doubt there's a term for this — perhaps more than one — but I don't know it. The OED notes it as sense 1.f. "Used confidentially or humorously to mean the person or persons addressed, with whose interests the speaker thus identifies himself or herself (esp. by a doctor in friendly or cheering address to a patient); also used mockingly or reproachfully by a parent, intimate friend, etc." Citations include:

    1836 DICKENS Sketches by Boz 1st Ser. I. 204 ‘Well, my dear ma'am, and how are we?’ inquired [Doctor] Wosky in a soothing tone. 1972 J. PORTER Meddler & her Murder iii. 47 ‘My, my,’ said Eve Spennymoor, with an apologetic glance..‘we are an old cross-patch today, aren't we?’ 1973 G. CHAPMAN et al. Monty Python's Flying Circus (1989) II. xxxvii. 199 Doctor Morning, Mr Henson… How are we today? 1992 B. KEENAN Evil Cradling xiii. 178 The words that his mother had spoken to his father when his father got angry about something. ‘Now, now, we are getting very paddy today, aren't we John?’


  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    To look at Fish's own examples, obviously the "we" who is supposedly going to build the roads and bridges and "restore science to its rightful place" is not the "royal we," but it's not clear to me that it's "we the people" either. Or if that's what's the syntax should be taken to be saying, it's a rhetorical flourish that goes way beyond empirical plausibility — not that that's particularly unusual in American political rhetoric. Building the roads and bridges is one thing, since presumably all of us who are taxpayers are at least going to contribute financially, and I can understand why he would want it to sound like an old-fashioned neighborly barn-raising rather than an actual modern public works project with all its inefficiencies and boondoggling. The science-restoration is harder to read that way, since what's really being talked about is the reversal of specific regulatory policies of the prior administration, which would be accomplished by a quite limited number of insiders in the new administration, perhaps with some input from Congress. And of course the "we" doesn't "feel" inclusive to those who do not accept that science was hitherto displaced from its rightful place or that the particular policy changes being alluded to will move it in the right direction. Whether that problem with the "we" is a matter of syntax, semantics, or pragmatics is I suppose open to debate.

  7. marc sobel said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    As a non-linguist but a native English speaker, I think this is another case of right wing projection. We the People is the opposite of We, the King but the Bush ideal was We the Emperor. As a rule I find that right wing criticism is projection of their actions. Example: Belief in Social Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Creationism) where the facts are that the (Intelligently Designed) laws and regulations create and preserve inequality of distribution of wealth whereas evolution exists.

    [(myl) Stanley Fish is certainly not a representative of the "right wing", in any standard sense, though R.V. Young's critique "Stanley Fish: the critic as sophist" (Modern Age, summer 2003) does describe "his disarming claim to be some kind of 'conservative' in his 1991-92 debates with Dinesh D'Souza". As far as I can tell from a limited encounter with Fish's voluminous works, "sophist" is a fair description of his political principles. Fish himself seems to agree:

    … in The New Criterion the essay on me [by Roger Kimball] was entitled "The Contemporary Sophist." He meant that as a derogatory label, but I thought it was perfectly appropriate. To call oneself a sophist is rhetorically effective at the moment because you seem to be confessing to a crime. If you begin by saying, "I am a sophist," and then begin unashemedly to explain why for you this is not a declaration of moral guilt, it's a nice effect move; it catches your audience's attention.

    (From "Fish Tales: A Conversation with 'The Contemporary Sophist'", in There's no such thing as free speech, and it's a good thing too, p. 291]

  8. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Slight topic drift: The pronoun "we" is frequently used in mathematical writing, in constructions like "We apply the Hahn-Banach theorem to conclude…" or "We note that all zeros of this polynomial are simple zeros…"

    My hypothesis is that the first person is avoided here because the claims are nothing to do with me the author specifically, but more along the lines of "At this point, people in general can use the Hahn-Banach theorem to…" or "Readers or sentient agents may note that the zeros of the polynomial are…"

  9. dr pepper said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Then there was the M&M commercial where two of the candies were discussing a new advertising campaing with an executive. The executive asks what would be a good way to get the word out. One of the candies replies "we could put up bilboards". Next scene, the two candies are struggling to paste up sheets of paper on a billboard. The candy that spoke before says "I meant 'we' in the corporate sense!".

  10. Mark P said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    JW Brewer – A fairly large segment of the population felt that science was improperly subjected to political controls by the previous administration. I think they believe they played at least a small part in the election of the current President, and feel some ownership of the process of letting government scientists do and report their research without political interference. This population segment was probably not large compared to the entire US population, but it included not only scientists, but also science journalists, many science-enthusiast laymen and others who felt a personal stake in the science (for example, in environmental regulations, endangered species regulations, and stem cell research, to name a few areas). I think they feel that the process is very much a communal one.

  11. Prejudice: The Fearful Right-wing Weapon « The Sane Asylum said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    […] Mark Liberman at Language Log has already done an excellent job of dismantling this libel. In brief, he does the […]

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    Slight topic drift: The pronoun "we" is frequently used in mathematical writing, in constructions like "We apply the Hahn-Banach theorem to conclude…" or "We note that all zeros of this polynomial are simple zeros…"

    My hypothesis is that the first person is avoided here because the claims are nothing to do with me the author specifically, but more along the lines of "At this point, people in general can use the Hahn-Banach theorem to…" or "Readers or sentient agents may note that the zeros of the polynomial are…"

    It seems to me that this could be taken as meaning "You, the reader, and I"

  13. Brett said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    @Skullturf- I believe you are essentially right about this usage. Many scientific journal styles guides actually caution against over-usage of "we" in single-author papers. (On the other hand, some journals practically require it.) The American Institute of Physics style guide describes it this way, "A single author should also use 'we' in the common construction that politely includes the reader: 'We have already seen….'" The point is that both author are readers are assumed to be doing the calculation or reasoning that is under discussion, which is why this becomes particularly common in mathematical material.

  14. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    The New Yorker used to use the royal "we" in its "Talk of the Town" columns. They were always in the first-person singular, even when it was clear that the "we" was really an "I." It sounded very quaint.

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    Thank you for persevering in your criticism of pundit sophistry.

    Pres. Obama can be legitimately criticized for for packing the Justice Dept. with professional extortionists, for failing to prosecute war criminals. Dwelling on his pronouns, as on other trivialities, is a sophisticated way of distracting us from those real failings, equally as from his successes.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    @ Mark P., I don't disagree that some reasonably significant number of people agree with the "restoring science" notion (and its semantic presupposition that the status quo ante was unsatisfactory) and perhaps its rhetorically appropriate for those people to be invited to feel included in the work of "restoration" regardless of their individual role in the contemplated process. But I take it it's common ground that that "we" is broader than the "royal we" yet narrower than "We the People" or at least that, if the syntax is aimed at rhetorically appropriating the we of "We the People," those who disagree with the new administration's policy proposals may find this a rhetorical strategy not to their taste. ("Not In Our Name," they might say, if inclined to pick up left-wing rhetoric at a garage sale.) It should be unsurprising that a speech like this shifts back and forth between de facto addressing the nation as a whole (and occasionally foreign nations as well, although those transitions are more explicit) and de facto addressing in a more focused way those who politically support the speaker and/or already agree with particular policy initiatives being proposed. To restate/expand a point I made in a prior comment thread, the "inclusive" use of first person plural pronouns generally means the pronoun's referent includes the relevant second-person "you," i.e. the addressee(s) of the particular discourse. But an address like this has multiple and simultaneous audiences of different levels of generality (supporters / all Americans / everyone in the world), so a particular we/our/us etc. might be inclusive or exclusive depending on which of those audiences/addressee(s) one was measuring it against.

    Using rhetoric suitable for addressing the nation as a whole when the particular text makes more sense for addressing the smaller audience consisting of ones own supporters is probably a common feature of Presidential rhetoric, and I would not tread down the dangerous path of presuming the current incumbent is more irksome on this score than his predecessors without conducting the sort of empirical investigation it seems clear Fish did not do. And treating the partisan views of ones own supporters as if they were the consensus views of the whole population is at least a more democratic failing than the Caesarism suggested by Fish.

  17. Sili said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    excessive empiricism


    Excuse me while I go smack my head repeatedly.

  18. Mark F. said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

    Is the royal "we" related to the use of plural-related second person forms as an honorific? I would assume so, but references to the royal "we" don't seem to mention that, say, "you" was once plural. (Wasn't it?)

  19. Aaron Davies said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:15 am

    my favorite part of the royal we system is the associated reflexive pronoun, "ourself".

    @mark, it would seem to depend, at minimum, on whether the use of the 2pl as the formal in a formal-familiar system actually has anything to do with its number. does anyone know of any evidence that the formal forms arose out of customs of addressing individual people as if they were groups?

  20. Graham Asher said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    Has anybody mentioned the programmers' we yet? No? Well, just search for 'we can' in Google Code Search:"we+can"&hl=en&btnG=Search+Code

    As a software developer I find myself using it all the time. Resistance is futile; it just seems the right way to express myself in a comment.

RSS feed for comments on this post