December 30, 2004

And a right guid willie waught to you, too, pal

We like the incantations we recite on ritual occasions to be linguistically opaque, from the unparsable "Star-Spangled Banner" (not many people can tell you what the object of watch is in the first verse) to the Pledge of Allegiance, with its orotund diction and its vague (and historically misanalyzed) "under God." But for sheer unfathomability, "Auld Lang Syne" is in a class by itself. Not that anybody can sing any of it beyond the first verse and the chorus, before the lyrics descend inscrutably into gowans, pint-stowps, willie-waughts and other items that would already have sounded pretty retro to Burns's contemporaries. But it's my guess that most people take the first two clauses of the song as the protases of a conditional, rather than as rhetorical questions. True, most versions of the lyrics end the lines with question marks (this is the most familiar version, a little different from Burns's):

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days o' auld lang syne?

But a fair number of people leave out the question marks (for example here, here, and here), which suggests that the interrogative force isn't obvious. It may make no sense that way -- "if old friends should be forgotten, we'll drink to bygone days anyway." But incomprehensibility only adds to the sense of immemorial tradition, even this happens to be a borrowed one, grafted onto American culture in 1929 by a Canadian of Italian ancestry.

As Eric Hobsbawm has observed, after all, the point of invented traditions like the kilt or the Pledge is to provide "emotionally charged signs of club membership rather than the statutes and objects of the club." And what could be more evocative than a New Year's song that's sodden with quaintly impenetrable phraseology? "Is not the Scotch phrase Auld Lang syne exceedingly expressive?" Burns wrote to a friend in 1793. Well, it works for me, anyway. Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 30, 2004 02:12 AM