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In certain formal contexts in Middle and Early Modern English, the sovereign of England would use the royal we to refer to themselves. At approximately the same time, English had a T-V distinction where the formal second-person forms "ye" and "you" were also the plural pronouns. So the first- and second-person plural pronouns were both used at one point to indicate respect or social distance.

My question is, has the third-person plural ever been used in a similar manner? Would a peasant in medieval England ever refer to their monarch as they?

  • Urban Dictionary actually has a related answer, though it doesn't directly address your question: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=the%20royal%20they – Andrew Brēza Apr 4 '17 at 22:13
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    Third-person singular was often used as a vocative Would His Majesty prefer x or y?, and second-person plural as well Would Your Majesty ... German has gone much farther than English, using a third-person plural (Sie) as the formal second-person. – John Lawler Apr 4 '17 at 22:19
  • We have little idea what mediaeval peasants said: they were almost all illiterate, and their social superiors mostly weren't interested in transcribing their utterances. – StoneyB Apr 4 '17 at 22:21
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    Third person singular is still used in some settings, e.g. "May it please the court." – Andrew Brēza Apr 4 '17 at 22:22
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The Google Ngram viewer shows that the term 'their Majesty' has been used as the plural form of 'his Majesty'. Here is one example of it referring to "the Kings of the Earth."

  • It appears that in the example you cited it is actually a regular third-person plural form, since the antecedent is itself plural. I am looking for a case of a third-person plural pronoun referring to a singular individual as a mark of respect. The ngram graph may be misleading, as "their majesty" could easily be used in different contexts, for example "as night fell the constellations drifted across the sky, and their majesty was undiminished by the clouds through which they shone." – iafisher Apr 5 '17 at 3:31

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