Auld Lang Syne

28 December 2021

It’s that time of year, Buzzkillers, when we ring out the old and ring in the new. This is the end of another year of busting myths and taking names. We couldn’t be more pleased with the way the old show has developed, and we couldn’t be more stoked about the new things we’ve got planned for next year.

The topic of “Auld Lang Syne” is perfect for this episode, because the grand old Scottish song reminds us that, when we forget old friends and old times (as we’re all wont to do every now and then), we should take time to pause and remember them. Let’s do that in this episode, but let’s do it in a special way, by learning a few fascinating things about that old song. I think it’ll help us appreciate the Auld Lang Syne sentiment more the next time we belt it out as the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve rings in New Year’s Day.

“Auld Lang Syne” means “old long since,” and it can be more broadly interpreted as, “long long ago,” “days gone by,” or, simply, “old times.” Therefore, “For auld lang syne,” as it appears in the first line of the song’s chorus, more or less means, “for (the sake of) old times.”

The Auld Lang Syne that we know started with Robert Burns (1759-1796), the famous Scottish poet and lyricist. Burns was (and is) such a monumental figure in Scottish history and culture that Scots celebrate his life and work on his birthday on the 25th of January every year. “Burns Night” is more or less the Scottish national holiday. In addition to trying to make a living as a farmer and laborer as a young man in the second half of the 18th century, Burns collected folk songs and poems from all over Scotland and wrote them down. In many instances, this was the first time that they had been transcribed and preserved in written form. 

In 1788, Burns sent a copy of the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” to the Scots Musical Museum. The “Museum” wasn’t a physical building. Rather, it was a massive folk song collection being published in a series of volumes by fellow folk music collectors, especially the noted music publisher, James Johnson, who had met Burns in the mid-1780s. 

Burns wrote to Johnson, “The following song is 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.” Burns’ letter neatly summarizes the type of work that he did, not just on Auld Lang Syne, but on many other songs and poems. Burns collected them from various sources (usually from people singing or reciting them to him), he wrote them down, and he often added verses of his own. Some of the words and basic ideas in Auld Lang Syne had appeared in older folk songs or poems dating back to the late 1600s. So it’s safe to say that Burns’ 1788 poem is the collected culmination of lots of earlier versions. 

Before I play a famous reading of Burns’ original poem Auld Lang Syne, I’d like to say a few things about the dialect/language used by Burns and many Scots poets.

Burns wrote and composed in Scots, which is generally considered a dialect of English. It’s common in Scotland, and is of very ancient origin. Certainly, that’s what I’ve always told students over the years. As so often happens, though, I learned a lot more about scholarly opinion on the linguistic status of Scots when I read the work that Buzzkill Institute researchers did for me. 

Rather than say definitively that Scots is a dialect of English, it’s more accurate to say that the Scots dialect that Burns used sits on a spectrum of the languages and dialects used in Scotland, both historically and in our own day. At one end of that spectrum, “Broad Scots” is considered a language in its own right. On the other end of the Scots spectrum, “Scottish Standard English” is more or less English with a Scottish accent and particular Scottish vocabulary. The dialect that Burns used is closer to the “Scottish Standard English” end of the spectrum and is considered a dialect of English by most scholars. 

Scots dialect and the Scots Language (which are in Germanic in origin) are not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic (which is a member of the Celtic language family, and is descended from Old Irish). Confused? Well, think about it this way, Buzzkillers. At any time in Scottish history, and even in Scotland today, there were (and are) three languages in use: English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic. No wonder Scotland has produced so many famous mathematicians and scientists over the years. It took massive brainpower just to keep the different languages and dialects in your head!

I’m going on at length about this, Buzzkillers, because when you’re listening to the following recording, I want you to realize that the narrator is speaking English. It’s the Scots dialect of English, but it’s still the English language. It will probably be as impenetrable to most of you as it was to me, before, that is, Institute researchers helped me understand it. Here is a 1953 recording of Burns’ original poem, read by the famous actor, Frederick Worlock.

And here it is in Standard English, or at least in Buzzkill English:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

One of the most common misunderstandings about Auld Lang Syne comes from confusion over the meaning of the first verse. Many people wonder if the song ponders the question of whether we should forget old friends. I’ve even heard people say they think the song is telling us to forget old friends and just to remember old times. Perhaps the most famous example of this was the way Billy Crystal said it in the popular 90s film, “When Harry Met 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 if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

This is a misunderstanding of the use of the word “should” in the opening verse. “Should” in Auld Lang Syne is used in the conditional sense, meaning, “if we forget old friend and old times, we should pause and take time to try to remember them (and, by implication in the rest of the song, remember them fondly).”

And that brings up another fascinating aspect of the singing of Auld Lang Syne that should be better known and, frankly, more widely practiced. The song is, of course, most closely associated with New Year’s Eve and it’s very common to sing it at the stroke of midnight. And certainly, the lyrics and sentiment of the song are perfectly fitted for that occasion. But in the Scottish tradition, Auld Lang Syne is sung at the end of any significant gathering of friends, and especially at ceremonies marking major life passages, such as marriages and graduations. 

I first encountered this at a wedding reception in Scotland many years ago, and the way the song was sung struck me very forcefully. During these occasions, Auld Lang Syne takes a more upbeat tone, and an even a faster pace. This gives it a deeply hopeful feeling, and seems to imply that, by remembering old friends and old times, times to come will be more joyful. 

And that brings me to my final point of this episode. If you’re one of life’s unfortunates who doesn’t know any Scottish people or does have a Scottish friend, go get one. Scots are, almost universally, the deepest thinking, but also most entertaining people you’ll ever meet. Robert Burns, and his work, perfectly encapsulated those national traits.

One of the ways to make your life better through Scots acquaintances is to get invited, or invite yourself, to a Burns’ Night (or Burns’ Supper) celebration. Robert Burns’ birthday is a national holiday in Scotland, held on (or near) January 25th. In fact, it’s _the_ national holiday. And it’s also celebrated by the Scots diaspora throughout the world. Burns’ songs are sung, haggis is served and, indeed, praised by the reading of a Burns’ poem dedicated to it. Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish composed of a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally served in a sheep’s stomach. (Yes, I know, after consuming that, you will indeed need to pause for auld lang syne.)

You’ll hear a good number of Burns’ most famous poems read at a Burns’ Supper, and you’ll no doubt participate in the most meaningful rendition of Auld Lang Syne you’ve ever heard.

Speaking of that, we’d like to leave you with Scotland’s greatest singer performing Auld Lang Syne. Jean Redpath was a crucial figure in the folk song revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and certainly had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard. We’d like to thank the good Buzzkillers at Rounder Records for permission to use this recording. We’ve put the Rounder Records CD of her Songs of Robert Burns on the Buzzkill Bookshelf.  And if you’ve had the misfortune never to have heard Jean Redpath before, you can thank me for thinking of putting it in this episode. 

But you should give extra thanks to the Scots. You’ve gotta admire a country, a culture, and a people who, when it came to choosing their national hero, the person they’ve devoted a national day and celebration to, they didn’t choose a famous warrior or politician. Instead, they chose a poet. 

Scots Wha Hae indeed, Buzzkillers. Talk to you next year.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Jean Redpath, The Songs of Robert Burns, Volumes 1 & 2, Compact Disc (1996)

Scotland’s greatest singer faithfully presents songs from Scotland’s greatest poet.

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