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Kings, Courtesy, and Sociolinguistics

The 2021 recipient of the annual Barker Lectureship highlighted the complex ins and outs of proper discourse between nobility in 17th-century Spain.

Friends talking.

What can we learn from 17th-century Spain about how to respect our neighbors? According to Dr. Lynn Williams (Spanish and Portuguese), the answer is a lot.

Dr. Williams received the 2021 the annual Barker Lectureship; he gave his lecture on November 18, titled “How to Address a King Without a Kingdom: Language and Reputation in XVII-Century Europe.”

As a renowned sociolinguist of the Spanish language, Williams has dedicated his research to the history of the Spanish language, including the topic of linguistic courtesy during the Golden Age of Spain. “Spanish has a fascinating history,” said Williams. While linguists tend to focus on how Latin morphology and phonology have evolved into Spanish, Williams noted that sociolinguistics delve into the role that verbal courtesy plays in political and social tensions between Spanish nobles.

As an example, in 1666, the Duke of Montalto was appointed the acting Mayordomo of Charles II’s household (Charles II was the young, sickly son of Queen Mariana of Austria). Montalto’s role meant he was only temporarily responsible for the members of Charles II’s household. This temporary role meant he did not have a precedent for how to speak to lower ranking members of the queen’s household because the traditional rules did not apply to his limited position.

Unfamiliar in his new role and hoping to maintain customs, Montalto wrote to the queen for guidance. She instructed him to address the members of the household as if he were the official Mayordomo Mayor instead of only acting in that role. This represented a break from tradition, which clearly indicated that such address only be used by someone in the official role. Montalto was so opposed to the queen’s instructions that he “avoided interacting with members of the queen’s household because he was unsure of the correct protocol.” In other words, the duke refused to fulfil his role and run the house rather than use incorrect address.

Today, we may not have the same level of customs and restrictions in our patterns of addressing others, but we do speak with our peers, neighbors, and coworkers daily. “When we interact with others, there’s more to it than simply words we choose to use,” said Williams. Strict rules for customary behavior in 17th-century Spain protected the people from psycho-pragmatic factors such as anger or flattery, since there were set expectations of how to speak to and treat one another. Such customs and restrictions still exist today, but they may be less obvious, so we are less aware of them. Therefore, we are more likely to give in to anger and flattery, more likely to polarize away from each other rather than meet, engage in discourse, and understand each others’ customs and restrictions. So what can we learn from 17th-century Spain about treating our neighbors better? We learn to listen to what they are trying to tell us within how they are telling it, and embrace their conversation.