American Fringes: The Bizarro English Used by Sovereign Citizens
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because inscrutable linguistic tricks can't get you out of trouble.
By Mark Hay
This article is part of a series exploring the fringes of American life, and how they’re redefining the mainstream. Read the first installment here.
- In 1988, David Wynn Miller invented his own take on English grammar and syntax saying it would end all human misunderstanding … but it’s gibberish.
- Still, the serial fabulist has left a legacy with the anti-government Sovereign Citizens movement, which uses his syntax to this day.
Few people know much about David Wynn Miller’s life, in large part because he told so many blatantly false stories about himself. Like the racist tale of how he once went in for kidney surgery but a Korean doctor misread his chart, removed both of his kidneys and his adrenal gland, and killed him — until he came back to life while cut open on an autopsy table, and walked away with a deep understanding of the threat of linguistic misunderstandings.
All we really know is that he was a machinist from Wisconsin who in the early 1980s had trouble navigating the legal system and wound up convinced it was nothing more than a cynical process of arcane linguistic maneuvering. But instead of trying to learn to game the system by reading up on law, Miller tried to override it — by inventing his own take on English syntax and grammar in 1988. He called it QUANTUM-MATH-COMMUNICATIONS. Or PARSE-SYNTAX-GRAMMAR. Or CORRECT-LANGUAGE. In it, he styled himself DAVID-WYNN:MILLER.
By all rights, Miller’s linguistic doodling should have amounted to nothing. He claimed he’d identified a mathematical truth at the root of all human languages and used it to create something no one could ever misunderstand— that would end human conflict through its utter clarity. But it reads like pure gibberish. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) actually noted in a 2016 report that Millerian syntax is mainly identifiable by its virtual unparsability. Yet Miller’s syntax took off with a small but influential group: Sovereign Citizens. Many of these conspiracy theorists elevated him to guru status and shelled out thousands of dollars a head to learn his true English. “His name is big,” says Matthew Sweeney, a researcher who studies the Sovereign Citizen (or SovCit) movement. “He is so well known — because he is so odd.”
Sovereign Citizens are almost as hard to pin down as Miller. Historians have attempted to trace their roots to the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s, a group that argued both that white Christians are the only true American citizens and that common law and sheriffs are their only true authorities in the land, meaning the federal government — and taxation — are illicit. But the Sovereign Citizen movement quickly developed into a decentralized, and less explicitly racially driven, phenomenon. Most still believe the feds are illegitimate tyrants who trick us into giving away our freedom — our inherent sovereignty — by signing official documents. But almost every cluster has unique beliefs about when American governance turned malignant, and original sovereignty’s nature.
Miller’s tutorials are opaque and packed with easily disproved claims, like that he was crowned King of Hawaii in 1996.
Experts estimate that there are as many as 300,000 “SovCits” in the U.S. alone, many of whom are obsessed with finding secret codes or tricks that will allow them to break their “contracts” with the federal government, escaping any law or tax they disagree with. Many attempt to do so by employing linguistic gambits dreamed up by gurus that will supposedly override federal trickery, like adding signed under threat, duress or coercion (or simply TDC) after their names.
Despite the shared goal of outfoxing the legal system through language, it can be hard to see why even SovCits flocked to Miller and his syntax. His tutorials are opaque and packed with easily disproved claims, like that he was crowned King of Hawaii in 1996. His syntax, as a number of linguists have noted, also makes no sense. It demonstrates “confusion about the nature of language in general … and of the English language specifically,” says David Peterson, an expert on constructed languages. Notably, it’s rooted in a belief that nouns have absolute, static meanings (e.g., that there is one true and universal definition of what constitutes a shoe, a gender, etc.). That conviction led Miller to arbitrarily recast words’ definitions and roles in line with his own understanding and convenience. As Peterson points out, “there is no such thing as context-independent meaning — in life or in language.”
Recent analyses of SovCit communities, however, suggest that many come into the scene and adopt radical ideas at times of intense personal vulnerability — in the midst of bankruptcy or divorces or other disorienting legal battles. Most were already prone to conspiratorial beliefs before these experiences. Miller explicitly reached out to people desperate for help in their legal battles, offering relief via briefings written in something that seemed just as inscrutable as the other legal documents they were trying to grapple with. But there’s no evidence he ever actually helped anyone solve their legal woes.
Miller, who died in 2018, once claimed he had a billion followers, including Bill Clinton and prominent judges — a sure flight of delusion. But he did amass a small, dedicated group of followers, whom Australian Federal Magistrate Michael Lloyd-Jones once referred to as a “linguistic cult,” and who may include Australian politician Malcolm Roberts and American mass murder Jared Lee Loughner. His most dedicated followers continue to spread his language and legacy far and wide.
Miller’s bizarre and misguided linguistic experiment is niche enough that most people will never encounter it. But no matter how tiny and nonsensical, it is an established part of the global linguistic landscape now. And it has an outsized power to mystify and infuriate most folks — especially government officials — who do encounter it in the wild.
In that sense, one could perhaps declare Millerian syntax a limited success. It did not bring about world peace or crack some secret legalistic code, as Miller ostensibly hoped it would. But it sure has vexed lawyers, judges and other agents of the state as much as they once vexed him.
- Mark Hay, OZY AuthorContact Mark Hay