Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Elite Language, Online Dating

Pardon my playing a little fast and loose with history in this post, but since this will be mostly conjectural, I hope you'll grant me a little latitude. If I've convinced you that the way Americans use formal language influences the relationship between the hoi polloi and political elites, then I'll call that a success.

First, a little linguistic history...

The English that most modern speakers would find comprehensible rose from the Norman influence brought to England in 1066. Until the middle of the 12th Century, Late Old English was the tongue of the land. By then, the French influence had spread through the estates (though it may be harder to track the development of the language among the peasantry). Middle English stuck around until shortly before the discovery of the New World (and, as luck might have it, the Reformation and the establishment of the Anglican Church). Early Modern English is what Shakespeare wrote in, and is found in the script of the King James Bible. All of those "thee"s and "thou"s and "yon"s and suchlike that caricatures archaic English can be found in Early Modern English and many of them are holdovers from the Norman invasion.

Among other delightful innovations the Normans brought the English, they transported a bureaucratic court system to set atop the relatively flatter manorial system that already existed (the cheap distinction between manorialism and feudalism is that manorialism defines the relationship between landowners and feudalism defines the relationships among political elites). Courtly language can still be found in standard spoken Romance languages: French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese all have formal versions of second person pronouns. Highly inflected languages often sport this feature: Lithuanian uses six noun cases and has pronouns for each (and yes, it's as infuriating as it sounds), with social rules circumscribing when to use formal or informal pronouns for address.

And this isn't limited to pronouns. Early American elites, following the insights of (esp.) Paine and others of the Scottish Enlightenment that the Divine Right of Kings was Grade-A bunkum, shrugged off title and courtly deference as an affront to the dignity of man. If you're feeling snarky, it's fair enough to qualify it as the dignity of white, majority-age, landowning man. Still and all, 'tis a matter of Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution that:
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
So, starting in earnest in 1789, a Google Trends search for instances of "your majesty" would show a decline on this side of the pond. This was a small linguistic nudge that held hands with a deeper philosophical shove that pushed down the trappings of power. We still see keen differences between the ornamentation of the House of Windsor and the Office of the President of the United States of America. It's still sort of scandalous when a royal shacks up with a commoner, but the Fifth Unspoken Law of American Electoral Politics is that if you don't sell yourself as a by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger figure, you better have a fair dose of luck or brand-name recognition behind you. There's a good reason the elaborate set piece of Crawford, TX was built before the 2000 election, and it owes a root or two to the de facio egalitarianism of American political philosophy and language.

None of this is to imply that political elites are any less influential in the US than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, it might very well be easier to erode constitutional barriers when the median voter retains some sense that elected officials are not fundamentally different from her. It may be that the important difference between, say, England and the US is in the initial endowment of individual liberty. Flattened language may well have been a correlate of Enlightenment thinking, but partially a cause of falsely legitimized paternalism.

So what does this have to do with euvoluntary exchange? Um, well, this is sort of a straight political economy idea, but euvoluntaryists should be sensitive to justifications for paternalistic policy. There's a sense in which the median voter might be too willing to vest political elites with moral authority under the mistaken assumption that these elites are one of us. This idea may be at least in part supported by both formal and informal institutional characteristics, including misleading second person pronouns and the absence of formal title. These effects may be minor, but they're also pretty well embedded in the basic framing of the electorate.

This post dedicated to Sarah Skwire and Deidre McCloskey.

Please again excuse the title. I'm fishing for more spambots. They're hilarious.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?