I was lucky enough to watch the Inauguration live today, specifically through a live feed with no commentary (surprisingly informative). The event was of extreme historical and political significance, but since I’m a linguistic I noticed some interesting elements about the ceremonial nature of the event itself.
From “sovreignty” point of view, the Inauguration may be the most important occasion in the United States political landscape. Like a coronation in monarchies, the Inauguration represents both the transition and the continuity of the Presidency. It is one of the few times in our state calendar where participants are guaranteed to be dressed in the most formal clothing. In fact, the live feed included an announcer officially announcing key people, including the children, as they appeared on the stage – very unusual for most Americans.
In fact the event was so formal, that it temporarily affected my linguistic style. On an ordinary day, I might observe “Michelle has a nice dress on” or “There’s Bill Clinton.” Today though I thought “Mrs Obama has a nice outfit on” and “There’s President Clinton.” It’s not often that the United States culture embraces formality, but today was a day to do that.
Today of course, we also observed some performatives and near performatives. A performative is when stating a verbal formula causes it to happen. Today President Obama swore to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution by saying “I do solemly swear that will…to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” A nifty piece of legalistic magic.
The response from the Chief Justice was interesting. I was expecting him to say something formulaic to confirm a successful installation. Instead he merely said “Congratulations Mr. President”, an interesting indication that the Chief Justice (unlike a bishop in a coronation) is not the “crowner”, but merely a key official enabling the transition. It was also an interesting return to a more informal tone that we are more accustomed to. It may also have been part of a collective sigh of relief that we were finally in the era of President Obama instead of the ambiguous President Bush/President Elect Obama period.
Like the ancient Celts, a transition state is something that modern Americans are not necessarily comfortable with.
Update: Retaking the Oath
As you may know, Justice Roberts inserted “faithfully” into the wrong place in the oath therby causing President Obama to slightly mis-state the oath on Jan 20. As a result, he had to retake the oath with the exact wording to ensure that there would be no Constitutional crisis down the road. Truthfully the differences between the two differences were so small that only a trained semanticist (or lawyer) could probably tell you.
What’s interesting was that the focus was on using the exact words as prescribed in the Constitution. While the meaning is important, the form is paramount as it is in many performatives. It reminds me of perhaps the strongest performative of all – a magic spell. Interestingly, a magic spells are often depicted with very restricted linguistic requirements (they rhyme or are in Latin or Sumerian). Performatives definitely require that we all agree to one and only one linguistic form – perhaps to curtail how widely they can be used. You do want to be careful that the right person becomes President and even more careful that you don’t turn a chicken into a cat.