A language expert explains why the ‘oath of allegiance’ to King Charles III is meaningless on several counts.
W hen Lambeth Palace envisioned a “chorus of millions” swearing their allegiance to Charles III and his “heirs and successors” at the coronation, it was doubtlessly intended as a patriotic ritual that would bring the nation together. So far, the invitation has indeed received a fairly broad consensus – though not exactly one of support.
As commentators from across the political spectrum have pointed out, this oath is problematic for many reasons. One is that it is meaningless. Another is that it is not actually an oath.
The linguist and philosopher J.L. Austin introduced the concept of the “performative speech act” in 1955. You can think of this almost as a magical incantation: if made under the right circumstances, it has the power of changing (social) reality. When those circumstances are lacking, it is effectively meaningless.
For example, the phrase “I pronounce you husband and wife” actually causes this union to come into effect – when spoken by a member of the clergy or an appropriately accredited civil servant to two people who have previously indicated their willingness. But if I said it on the street to two random people it would, at most, cause consternation.
There are many kinds of performative speech acts – a verdict in a court case, the bestowing of a degree or honour, or even simply the extension of an invitation to a coronation street party. Each of these, to a different degree, changes things. Someone is deprived of liberty or has it restored to them, someone’s name is extended by a string of letters, or an event comes into existence for which all parties duly plan.
Promises (and an oath is a solemnised type of promise) are performative speech acts. If I promise to do something, I create a new version of reality in which I am bound to fulfil that promise.
There are two prerequisites that must be met for it to be a “proper” promise. First, the speaker must believe they are capable of carrying out the promised action. Second, the action must not be something they would do in any case in the normal course of events. If these two conditions are not met, the promise is meaningless, as it violates what linguists call the sincerity condition.
For example, when the singer Jacques Brel promised the lover about to leave him that he would offer her “pearls of rain from countries where there is no rain”, it was a beautifully poetic statement, but in all probability not something he actually believed he would be able to fulfil. In other words, the promise was insincere.
When is an oath not an oath?
The oath of allegiance to the king fails the sincerity condition on two counts (three if you are an atheist or agnostic and do not believe that “So help me God” is a meaningful statement).
First, it is a promise made to the monarch and his heirs and successors. The problem here is the use of the plural: how many heirs and successors are there, and who are they?
This turns out to be impossible to answer, as any such determination relies on the arbitrary selection of the earliest person whose descendants you choose to take into account. You can extend this as far back as you want (one of the longest current lists has close to 6,000 people).
That in itself makes the promise unfulfillable, and thus insincere – quite apart from the fact that the list contains names that some would find problematic.
Second, what does it mean to be “faithful and bear true allegiance” to this unspecified multitude of people? If, say, person number 43 on the list of succession (whoever they may be) turned up on your doorstep, requiring you to take up your pitchfork and help them defend the pheasants on their country estate against their poaching neighbour, the oath would not be enforceable, as it contains the get-out clause “in accordance with the law”, which prohibits vigilantism.
Beyond acts that are already illegal – such as throwing eggs at someone – the only context in which I can imagine the concept of “faithfulness and true allegiance” being tested is a referendum on the future of the monarchy. Voting to abolish the monarch would, I should think, be incongruent with being loyal to him, but would it, therefore, be a violation of this oath?
Again, this hinges on the phrase “in accordance with the law”. The law grants all British citizens the right to free expression of opinion and to a free vote in elections and referendums.
So if you feel the urge to mount a republican campaign five minutes after having solemnly sworn your true allegiance, good luck to you. Just be aware of the ever-tightening restrictions on how you can make your views known – but that is another story.
Most people would act (or even protest) in accordance with the law most of the time when it comes to their dealing with the monarch. This again makes the oath of allegiance insincere – you are not promising anything that you would not be doing (or refrain from doing) anyway.
All the quasi-magical accoutrements of a grand performative speech act are there: it is given with great pomp and circumstance during an official ceremony. However, the promise that is made – to honour and be loyal in an unspecifiable way to an unknowable number of unknown people – cannot actually be delivered. This oath is not an oath: it is a farce.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Monika Schmid, Professor of Linguistics and Head of Department of Language and Linguistic Science at the University of York. Fellow of the British Academy, the Academy of Social Sciences, and the Academia Europaea.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 4 May 2023. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Bing. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)