The original “Auld Lang Syne” Song

This blog is devoted to the comprehension of the physical mechanisms that explain the anomalous cell division and differentiation. In the beginning of this new year 2015 I am going to make an exception for celebrating the new year with you.

As English Second Language learner, this past New Year’s eve I tried to understand the “Auld lang syne” lyrics, and for my total surprise I found out that it is a traditional Scottish song which most native English people sing without knowing old Scottish.

At first sight It looks that the song speaks about two old acquaintance having a friendly meeting and remembering past times; they propose a kind toast for the “auld lang syne”, which is the chorus of the song and translated into English as “old past times”.

The “auld lang syne”, the past times, is always a nostalgic theme, it refers to the time which has gone out and we can only remember it knowing that those days never will come back again. It alludes to the loss, the aging, the farewell… the death itself. In this sense it looks very appropriate for saying good by to the old year, with some kind of sadness.

But hearing the song I thought there was something disharmonious on it. The thing which was striking to me was the solemnity of the music itself, its enormous and deep emotional charge. There is something magnificent and grandeur on those musical notes. Without knowing exactly the meaning of its lyrics, the solemnity of the music moves people to hold their hands and arms and to feel the arrive of a stream of moving feelings. More than a nostalgic but irrelevant song related some old acquaintances speaking about the old past times, it looks a true and monumental hymn.

I read in the Wikipedia that the song was written in 1788 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, and that he took most a good deal from a previously known popular song which he heard singing from an ancient Scottish man. You can read in the article that Robert Burns sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with the remark, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”  

The idea that maybe Mr. Burns could have misinterpreted the chorus when he heard it from the old Scottish singer became to my mind. It is very well known from foreign learners the strong difficulty for spelling correctly the spoken English and the similarity of many of its sounds. Furthermore spoken and written English have followed different paths in their evolution.

I do not know if the term “acquaintance” had in the 17/18 century the same meaning than now, but I think that it is evident that the plot of the song does not refer to two mere “acquaintances”. If they was remembering their old gathered times and because of them they decided to take the “cup of kindness yet” it looks it was because they were previously fought and they were trying to overcoming their mutual differences through their dialog. In this sense the main plot of the song seems to be their mutual fraternity and their reconciliation more than only remembering their past. I interpret they had a previous strong, broken or near to be broke, mutual link. Would you call “my dear” to a mere acquaintance?

I consider reasonable to think that the old acquaintances mentioned by the traditional song were the people of England and Scotland. The Acts of the union between those two neighbor and very well acquaintance countries had been emitted by their respective parliaments some years before, in 1707, and undoubtedly it had to be a very important event necessarily picked up and expressed in different ways by the popular culture of those countries.

I do not know well the history of England and Scotland but the problem of their mutual union, and I suppose their gathered past, and their recurring fightings and reconciliations too, has survived until today. The Scotland independence problem became a very transcendental question for the Great Britain in 2014.

I suspect that the “Auld lang Syne” was originally a patriotic song dedicated to the union of England and Scotland, a true hymn of their mutual fraternity, and the hope for a shining future as united nation, the Great Britain.

The term “our” has currently two different accepted pronunciations. It should be interesting to know if in the 17/18 century there was a third one.

In this sense it could be easily thought that the term “our” could be pronounced at that time in a very similar way than the term “auld” and the English “old”. Was there any change on the Scottish pronunciation of the term “our” between the 17 and 18 centuries? Did that pronunciation changed from a “o-u-(r)” to an “a-u-e(r)” or an “a:(r)”? The term “lang” sounds very similar to “land”. And it occurs something similar between “Syne” and “shine”. I intuit that “For auld lang syne” could have been a misinterpretation of the original chorus, “for our land shine” (or four our land’s shine/our lands’ shine).

In this sense, the “Our land’s shine” should not be a nostalgic song. It should not speak about losses nor farewells. It should speak about union and fraternity, forgiveness, responsibility, and the hope on a shine shared future. It is a song about the future not about the past. It is a very emotional and solemn song because it speaks about the shine of our land, our homeland, and the desire of peace and fraternity between people and countries, the hope of a better and shared future for all of us. It is a patriotic hymn. The hymn for the unity of the Great Britain.

I have read an ABCNews article about the confusion that the lyrics of “Auld lang syne” produces today between native English speakers. It is very well reflected on the movie “When Harry found Sally”. Harry asked Sally: “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot?’ Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances. Or does it mean that if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?”… And Sally answered him: “Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.” But it seems they referred only to the two first verses “Should old acquaintance be forgot/and never brought to mind”, which are perfectly understandable in English, and not to the Scottish chorus, “For auld lang syne”, which is not understandable at all for current english speakers unless it is translated to English previously, which should have been a much more embarrassing question yet.

ABCNews’ article link: Auld Lang Syne’: What Does it Mean Again?

This kind of speculative philological hypothesis that I have made, a sort of archeology of language that you probably will no consider scientific, is not very different to the researching that I think should be made by true theoretical physicists. It only consists in a different interpretation of traditional datas which result illuminated from a different perspective. An interpretation according to the reason, looking for more reasonable meanings, answering in a different way to not sufficiently explained questions that have remained open, maybe, during 400 years.

Have a very Happy New Year!

Alfonso.

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