Auld Lang Syne FAQ

Times Square

Photo: Maria Azzurra Mugnai

Last night was New Years’ Eve, which brings about the yearly revival of the song Auld Lang Syne.  Originally penned by Robert Burns (the melody is traditional), the lyrics are in the Scots language (or dialect, depending on your point of view).  The title roughly translates as ‘times long past’ or ‘old times gone’ or other combinations of ‘times,’ ‘old,’ and ‘past.’

Over the years, I’ve heard the same three questions asked about this tune:

1.)  Why do Americans sing a song in Scots at midnight? The reasons that the song spread are a bit sketchy, but it seems to have been popularized in America by Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo, who played the song during New Years’ Eve radio shows.  That it is sung in a semi-obscure relative of English, then, is rather beside the point: Lombardo’s rendition of the tune was instrumental.

2.) Why do we translate most of the words of the song into standard English, but not the title?  This common misconception arises from the first stanza of the song, which is usually the only one anyone knows:

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

Why do we sing in English up until those last three words?

In fact, little is translated here from Burns’ original Scots. This is simply the stanza that most resembles Standard English. (I’d also point out that ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’ isn’t Standard English to begin with). My guess is that not many New Years’ revelers in Times Square sing the words a few bars down:

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

There is one way in which Burns’ lyrics do get consistently altered, but it’s fairly minor: ‘For old Lang Syne, my dear’ is changed from the original ‘For auld Lang Syne, my jo’ (the last word is Scots for ‘sweetheart’).  There is a more complete translation that I’ve heard sung by choral groups and such, but the point is moot on New Years: I’ve never heard anyone sing past the first two verses at a party.

3.)  Why do Americans mispronounce ‘Auld Lang Syne?’ This is a bit more mysterious than the first two questions.  In Scots, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is pronounced rather similarly to Standard English ‘old long sign’ (really [ɔld lɑŋ səɪn]). Most Americans I’ve heard singing the song, however, pronounce ‘lang’ so it rhymes with ‘rang,’ and pronounce ‘syne’ with a /z/ sound: this results in [old læŋ zaɪn] (or [old leɪŋ zaɪn], given that many Americans raise the /æ/ before ‘ng.’)

I can understand why ‘lang’ is pronounced the way it is (we don’t typically associate ‘a’ before ‘-ng’ with the broad-a in father), but the /z/ in ‘syne’ is odd.  This may simply be a matter of assimilation (the influence of a sound on one near it).  But we have little difficulty pronouncing the ‘s’ in ‘gang sign’ as an /s/.  

So what’s with the /z/?  Simple assimilation, or something else?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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13 Responses to Auld Lang Syne FAQ

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    I believe most Americans would pronounce “auld” as [ɑːld] (rhymes with “bald”).

    • trawicks says:

      The Oxford American Dictionary lists two variations: [ɔld] or [oʊld]. L-coloring results in these being surprisingly close in many American accents: in my own accent, my normally fairly open ‘aw’ raises to [ɔ] before l, while [oʊ] is backer and more monophthongal: [o]. Given that many people learn the song by listening to crowds of slurring partygoers, there are probably quite a few other variations!

    • IVV says:

      Yup, I’m an [ɑːld] speaker.

      Although I avoid this song whenever possible.

  2. ‘Auld’ in the title would generally be pronounced [ɔld] in Scots, not [old]. This is retained in a number of words before /ld/, including ‘cold’ [kɔld] and ‘hold’ [hɔd].

    As for the [z] in ‘syne’, I can only guess that assimilation is the culprit here. Even in my own accent, it’s more a devoiced [z] that it a fully voiceless [s].

  3. Dw says:

    The vowel of “lang” is surely just a spelling pronunciation. In England i’ve generally heard it pronounced with TRAP rather than SPA.

    The /z/ of “syne” is probably due to the fact that it’s easier to sing voiced consonants, especially in the middle of a melody.

    I think that the whole premise — that English speakers
    ought to pronounce the words as close as possible to the Scots pronunciation — is unrealistic.

  4. Sooryan FM says:

    I don’t know why the pronunciation of LONG got a rounding in some accents of English. It is still unrounded in most Irish accents (including the Dublin accent), in Irish Newfoundland English (spoken in the city of St. John’s), and in most parts of the American West. Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary considers its the standard form in American English:

    long /ˈlɑ:ŋ/ adjective
    lon·ger /ˈlɑ:ŋgɚ/; lon·gest /ˈlɑ:ŋgəst/

    http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/long

    LONG in OED
    Forms: OE lang, ME, Sc.ME–18 lang, (ME Sc. launge), ME longue, ME–16 longe, (15 lounge), OE, ME– long. See also lenger adj. and adv., lengest adj. and adv.(Show Less)
    Etymology: Common Germanic: Old English lang , lǫng = Old Frisian, Old Saxon lang , long (Middle Dutch, Middle Low German, Dutch, Low German lang ), Old High German lang (Middle High German lanc , lang- , modern German lang ), Old Norse lang-r (Danish lang , Swedish lång ), Gothic lagg-s < Old Germanic *laŋgo- < pre-Germanic *loŋgho- (= Latin longus , Gaulish longo- in proper names, ? Old Irish long- in combination).

    • dw says:

      @Sooryan FM:

      Your premise is false, or at least extremely misleading. While it’s true that the ancestor of “long” was unrounded in West Germanic, and also in the variet(ies) of Old English from which Modern English descends, all current accents of Standard English descend from varieties of Middle English which had rounded vowels in “long ” (and also “strong”).

      The sequence, according to Dobson, “English Pronounciation”, was:

      WGmc lang -> OE lɑːng -> EMidE lɔːng -> LMidE lɔng -> EModE lɒng

      Varieties of modern English with an unrounded vowel in “long” and “strong” have in fact innovated further to remove the rounding, with the accidental result of returning to the earlier vowel.

  5. Ed says:

    This is a stab in the dark but might it be owing to confusion with the German “lang zeit”, which is pronounced [laŋ zaɪt]?

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