From the auldies but guidies file

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(This post first appeared on 12/30/2004 under the heading "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 lot 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. Have a happy one.

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  1. Chris said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 12:41 am

    As an Australian who'd never seen the text of Star-Spangled Banner before now, I was curious… After a bit of confusion, I read 'the ramparts' as the object of 'watched'. Right? It's a flag whose stars and stripes were gallantly streaming over the ramparts, which 'we' watched, during the fight. It is pretty opaque, but that's how I'd parse it. Sorry to stray from the main point of the post a little.

  2. HP said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 12:46 am

    Without clicking the links, "we'll drink cup of kindness, yet," so there.

    Take it or leave it.

  3. Dan S said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 12:55 am

    @Chris, I'm pretty sure we're watching the fight.

    But I do wonder, was that sentence ever considered anything but a mess?

    @Geoff, you've a broken hyperlink, the penultimate in the post.

    Happy new year, all!

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 1:25 am

    @Dan S, if we're watching the fight, then "through" is left with no complement. I think we were watching something over the ramparts for the entire duration of the fight. That something appears to be the stripes and stars, but then what was doing the gallant streaming? Perhaps we watched the stripes and starts stream gallantly over the ramparts through[out] the fight?

  5. HP said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 1:39 am

    @ Chris — as a Commonwealth citizen, think of it this way: Francis Scott Key watched the best forces of the British Navy — the greatest naval force the world has ever known — let loose with everything they had on the Americans, and fight to a draw. That's basically what our anthem is about — we fought the British to a draw.

    It's a musical salute to a tie score.

    But when you're playing defense, a tie is all you need.

  6. Brett said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 1:44 am

    Chris has it right about The Star-Spangled Banner. "[W]e" in the song, "watched" "the ramparts," "o'er" which the "broad stripes and bright stars… were so gallantly streaming." It is confusing, since the poem's speaker is watching to see whether the American flag is still flying at dawn (over Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814); however, the "watched" in the poem is more synonymous with "guarded."

  7. Stuart said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 4:51 am

    "Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thru the perilous fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?"

    The stripes and stars of the flag were gallantly streaming, right? They were streaming thru the fight. There were some ramparts, and we watched something. What did we watch? Perhaps we watched (guarded) the ramparts: the stripes and stars were streaming thru the fight and over the ramparts which we watched. Or perhaps we watched (observed) the fight: the stripes and stars were streaming thru the fight that we watched over the ramparts. Both readings seem equally sensible, but the former seems more plausible to me.

  8. J. Goard said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 6:07 am

    @Brett:

    Exactly. Having the right sense of "watched" ought to make everything click into place.

    I love the convoluted syntax of the poem, such as the strained Saxon (i.e. "apostrophe-s") genitive in "their foul footsteps' pollution", even though the possessee is an abstract noun constituted by the possessor. It's a bit like saying "red lipstick's stain" rather that "the stain of red lipstick".

    One other cool thing about the song's first verse, in the contemporary context, is that — since we know, after all, that the banner is indeed waving — the question can be interpreted to be about whether the United States is still the land of the free and home of the brave.

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 6:50 am

    People often miss out important punctuation when writing song lyrics. I suspect the idea is that you don't need to understand what you're singing, but you do need to know the words.

    To give a similar example, the first ghit I get for "jerusalem lyrics" has no punctuation mark other than apostrophes, but the lyrics contain four rhetorical questions.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    lyrics descend inscrutably

    I can never hear

    We twa hae paiddl't i' the burn

    as anything but

    We twa hae piddl't i' the burn

  11. empty said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    Is it a guid-willie waught or a guid willie-waught?

  12. Sally Thomason said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    I always thought that that "watched" was intransitive, as in, for instance, "we watched through the night" or "we stood there and watched in disbelief".

    [(myl) The watched inthe song might a figurative application of OED sense 10.a. "a. To guard against attack ..."

    Or given that Key was observing the action from a distance, it might be just sense 11. "To keep (a person or thing) in view in order to observe any actions, movements, or changes that may occur".

    But either way, I don't see how to parse

    Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
    What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
    Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

    without taking ramparts as the object of watched. ]

  13. Dan S said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    I'm ready to give 'watched' any object, at this point, or none at all. But could there be an elided 'and' after 'watched', so that the flag is both object of 'watched' and subject of 'streaming'?

    @empty, it's indeed guid-willie. As in good-will.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auld_Lang_Syne#Lyrics

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 10:29 am

    I think he was watching the flag over the ramparts, not watching the ramparts.

  15. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    I grew up with the Marseillaise, but I was in my forties before I parsed "Contre nous de la tyrannie/ L'etandard sanglant est leve (sorry, can't do accents)" as "The bleeding flag of tyranny is raised against us." I felt both gratified and a bit stupid when I figured it out, so I was happy to read Hobsbawm's take on such things.

  16. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    "Bloody banner" might be a better translation.

  17. Troy S. said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    I'm glad this topic came up. I think I can parse the National Anthem ("broad stripes and bright stars" are the direct objects of watched) , but I have no idea what the syntax of "God rest ye merry gentlemen" is, nor, for that matter, "Till death do us part" (or even its supposedly corrected version "Till death us depart.") Any ideas?

  18. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    Perhaps one should keep in mind that Francis Scott Key was under a guard of British sailors the night of this assault, and therefore he wasn't guarding those ramparts. I think he was intending to say that he and John S.Skinner, the agent for the exchange of prisoners, had watched the ramparts (direct object of "watched," in this line of the poem) where the fight was taking place all night long, keeping an eye out for the stars-and-stripes gallantly streaming above said ramparts. It was personally important to him that the fort not fall, and the flying flag was the indicator that indeed, it had not fallen.

    If you don't mind copying and pasting a link, you can read one account of the history here:
    http://www.francisscottkey.org/

  19. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 11:51 am

    Oh, joy, my link is actually clickable. Thanks, LL!

    And sorry for leaving out the first comma of the pair with which I was trying to set "indeed" apart from the rest of my 19th-century type prose.

  20. Justin said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    Key couldn't have watched the ramparts in a sense of guarding them, as he was on a British ship at the time. What was being watched was the flag, and more specifically the broad stripes and bright stars, as opposed to the british flag that would be flying had the Fort been taken.

  21. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    @Justin

    To be accurate, Key was on an American ship which had been taken under guard by British sailors.

    "Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement."
    http://www.francisscottkey.org/

    See my comment above.

    And the flag was streaming over the ramparts [that] he watched. An understood repetition of "ramparts" is the direct object in this relative clause which modifies "ramparts."

  22. Morten Jonsson said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    I think two constructions have gotten fused together. Without the "were" in the last line, the sense would be "We watched [the flag's] broad stripes and bright stars so gallantly streaming through the perilous fight." That fits the syntax of the stanza as a whole. But with it, we have "[The flag's] broad stripes and bright stars were so gallantly streaming through the perilous fight." That doesn't fit, but it stands on its own quite well, and it's somewhat more emphatic than the first reading. Either Key lost track or he was trying to have it both ways. (And ended up with neither.)

  23. Brett said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    @myl– I don't think the use of "watched" to mean "guarded" is what is figurative in that reading. Instead, the issue is who the "we" doing the watching is supposed to be. I take it to be, essentially, the Americans, among whom Key numbers himself. The use of the first person plural in military contexts like this is (where the speaker is not literally part of the fighting), of course, incredibly common. (Nobody expected Winston Churchill to be fighting in France, the air, the beaches, etc.–although maybe the hills.)

    Of course, the other meaning is certainly a possible reading as well, although I find it less poetic and inspiring. The interpretation of "watch" as "guard" is used to good effect in this Second World War poster: http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc218/m1/1/med_res/

    Moreover, there is actually a third reading, which some of the other comments have alluded to. It may be a non-parallel construction, with "broad stripes and bright" stars as both the object of "watched" and the subject of "were," with the "and" that would have connected the two parts elided and replaced with a comma. This would make the basic structure of the lines in question: "… whose broad stripes and bright stars… we watched [and] were… streaming?" This is rather odd, but such constructions are not unknown.

  24. Xmun said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    @Troy S., who has no idea what the syntax of "God rest ye merry gentlemen" is, nor, for that matter, "Till death do us part" . . . Any ideas?

    I'll try to answer the second of these puzzles. In "Till death do us part", "death" is the subject, "do . . . part" (sc. divide) is the verb phrase, and "us" is the direct object of "part". Note that the verb is active. The usual way of expressing this idea in modern English is to use the passive, "till we are parted by death".

  25. Ellen K. said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    Troy, see here: http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2010/12/25/merry-gentlemen/

  26. Nathan said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    "Should auld acquaintance be forgot" is also used by another flag song, "You're a Grand Old Flag". Here it is definitely a conditional. But was Cohan just following the common interpretation of his time, or did he influence the way Americans interpret the original?

  27. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    Brett commented to myl: "Instead, the issue is who the 'we' doing the watching is supposed to be. I take it to be, essentially, the Americans, among whom Key numbers himself."

    Brett, the Americans who were watching watching from Key's vantage point were Key and the prisoner exchange agent, John S. Skinner. Key wrote the poem on the back of an envelope just as dawn was breaking. The firing had ceased, and there was no way to make out whether or not the Stars and Stripes were still displayed on the flagpole.

    Key was putting down his own thoughts and feelings. He was a prisoner on the vessel President Madison had assigned to take him and Skinner to approach General Ross to obtain the release of one of Key's close friends, Dr. William Beanes, who had been captured in Washington D.C. by General Cockburn and General Ross. Ross agreed, at last, to the release of Dr. Beanes, but he required Key and Skinner to remain in British custody until after the planned attack on Ft. McHenry was completed. He then returned them to the American vessel, and they were there under the guard of British sailors all night, watching the ramparts of Ft. McHenry through the gloom and smoke of the battle, seeing the flag still there by the light of the rockets and exploding bombs.

    Here's the account I quoted from in an earlier comment here on Geoff Nunberg's post:
    http://www.francisscottkey.org/

    Please scroll down past the ad to read it.

    BTW, CGEL supports my view that "we watched" is a relative clause modifying ramparts, with the direct object "ramparts" understood. The example there, on p. 950 of my copy, is: "I couldn't find the book that I wanted."

    Further, in such constructions, it's common practice for "that" to be understood, as well, as it is in Key's line. I didn't look up the specific page number to document this last, but many examples do come to mind.

  28. Bob C said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    I think "we" (Key & Skinner?) were watching the flag (the referent of "what" and "whose") by looking o'er the ramparts. But I'm having a hard time figuring out where "were so gallantly streaming" fits in.

  29. Levi Montgomery said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    Well, I was going to be all responsible and mature and efficient today, and get a lot done to start my year off with a bang.

    Instead, I've spent an hour or so reading the histories of kilts and plaids and tartans, tracing down that obscure reference to the kilt as an "invented" tradition.

    Ah, well — a day not spent learning is a day wasted.

  30. Breffni said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    "Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight / O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming"

    Apart from identifying the correct sense of "watch", the complication here is that there are two movements of constituents out of their expected positions, i.e.

    Whose broad stripes and bright stars
    1. were so gallantly streaming
    2. o'er the ramparts we watched
    3. thru the perilous fight

    … becomes:
    Whose broad stripes and bright stars
    3. thru the perilous fight
    2. o'er the ramparts we watched
    1. were so gallantly streaming

    So as Mary Bull points out, "we watched" is a relative modifying "the ramparts", i.e., "the ramparts [that] we watched". So: The flag's stars and stripes were gallantly streaming, throughout the perilous fight, over the ramparts we were watching (guarding).

  31. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    @Bob C , who said,
    "I think 'we' (Key & Skinner?) were watching the flag (the referent of "what" and "whose") by looking o'er the ramparts."
    They were watching it. But in the relative clause, "we watched," which modifies ramparts, as I analyzed it in my comment to Brett, what they are described as watching is the ramparts.

    To your further comment, "But I'm having a hard time figuring out where 'were so gallantly streaming' fits in," I'd like to suggest this as an answer:

    I think, if you remove the other modifiers which follow "whose broad stripes and bright stars," that it's possible to see that "broad stripes and bright stars" is the subject of "were … streaming."

    "Whose broad stripes and bright stars were so gallantly streaming?"

  32. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

    @Breffni

    That was a good tactic, to rearrange all the clauses and other modifiers. Wish I'd thought of it. :)

    I still take issue with the idea that Key and Skinner, prisoners of the British, were "guarding" the ramparts of Ft. McHenry.

    Again, I refer you to the information here — scroll down past that first picture to read the capsuled history.
    http://www.francisscottkey.org/

    And further down, past more pictures, there's a link to an image of the actual first-draft manuscript.
    http://images.virtualology.com/images/5037.jpg

  33. Joe Fineman said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    I have known the Star-Spangled Banner for, I suppose, a bit under 70 years, and it never occurred to me that the object of "watched" could be anything but "ramparts" — or, more precisely, the suppressed relative "that" of which "ramparts" was the antecedent.

    "God rest you merry, gentlemen" is the proper punctuation. "Gentlemen" is vocative; "you" refers to the gentlemen addressed, "God rest you" is a 3rd-person imperative (= "may God rest you"), and "merry" is a predicate adjective; the sense is "may God settle you in a merry condition". "Ye" for "you" is a piece of false archaism; "you" is the object of "rest".

  34. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    @Joe Fineman
    I've known "The Star-Spangled Banner" for at least 75 years — can't remember when I didn't know it. And, like you, it's always been obvious to me that what "we watched" was "ramparts."

    I used to have the words to all the verses memorized, but at 83 my memory's getting a little faulty. It's a great song — I even like the "drinking" tune Key picked for it to be sung to. I can play it from memory on my piano — used to have the harmony parts when I played horn in my high school and later my community band.

    I don't subscribe to all its sentiments any longer, though. I have a more nuanced view of my country's place in the world and her ethical positions, in many areas.

    But as Geoff Nunberg noted, I love to sing it and reinforce my feelings of solidarity with my fellow countrymen.

    Great analysis, btw, of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

  35. bloix said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    We were watching the perilous fight. That's what was going on, and from our position as temporary prisoners on a British ship in the harbor, that's what we cared about – we wanted to know who was going to win, and we watched as long as there was light. Then it got too dark to see the fighting, but from time to time we could tell from the light of the bombardment that the flag had not been hauled down. At dawn we rushed to the ship's side to see if the flag was still there – that the fort had not surrendered and the city was still in American hands.

    A paraphrase:
    Now that it's dawn, can you see the thing we hailed last night, whose stars and stripes were streaming over the ramparts through the perilous fight [that] we watched.

    Note that the comma placement between ramparts and watched is not modern usage. It's a comma splice, which was perfectly common and acceptable in 18th and early 19th century punctuation.

    (The comma does appear in the original manuscript,http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/KeysSSB.jpg)

  36. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

    "That" is the object of watched, and is an elided relative pronoun, antecedent ramparts.

    From his ship, Key would have watched, or looked at/over, the ramparts of the American fortification to see the flag. To guard the ramparts (the other possible meaning of watch), Key would have to have been within the compound.

    Plausible rephrasing: Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light what we hailed so proudly at the twilight's last gleaming–whose broad stripes and bright stars were so gallantly streaming o'er the ramparts [that] we watched thru the perilous fight?

    Analogous paraphrase: Can you see this morning what we saluted last night–whose stripes and stars flew over the ramparts that we watched through the battle?

  37. Breffni said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    Mary, thanks for the link, which I finally followed. And apologies: of course you're right that "watching" the ramparts doesn't mean guarding them. To the limited extent that I ever thought about it (not being American), I assumed that the perspective was that of a defender. It makes more sense now.

  38. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    On till death do us part:

    I've researched the various analytic causative constructions in the history of English. The "make" causative as in it made me laugh only started to emerge in Middle English. An older analytic causative, occurring in Old English and persisting through the Middle English period, was [don (the ancestor of Modern English do) + (direct object) + INF]. So "it did us laugh" was the normal way of saying "it made us laugh".

    Till death do us part means 'until death causes us to part'. The main verb do is in the subjunctive, to indicate irrealis. That's why it does not have a 3rd person sg. marker in this preserved formula.

    In Old English the don analytic causative construction also did not take the to that precedes infinitivals in most of the modern infinitival complement constructions. to only became grammaticalized later, and never made it to constructions with make, let, and the later have causative.

    The Old English construction had a 'sister construction' based on the verb latan 'let', which functioned as a causative with human direct objects (as in the Old English analogue of 'they let him come' which could mean 'they let him come' but also 'they had him come'.

    Both the don and latan causatives in Old English have "cognate constructions" which have persisted all through the history of Dutch, namely [doen/laten + (D.O.) + INF]). As in Old English, if you leave out the direct object of these verbs (an argument that also functions as the subject of the infinitive), it is interpreted as an unspecified, usually generic causee, something like "they let proclaim the law" meaning 'they caused (GENERIC CAUSEE) to proclaim the law'. Sorry I can't generate Old English and Dutch examples from where I currently am, far from home. Arie Verhagen and his students have written about the history of the Dutch constructions.

    All these constructions have changed through time: English lost the 'do' causative, except in the expression 'til death do us part'; the make causative largely replaced it but is more semantically specialized (I wrote a paper about what it means in Mod. English–it is not a "general" causative construction). The borrowed verb cause, with to before the complement, covers some of the semantic territory of the old construction, but in the last couple centuries the have causative has appeared, with a semantic specialization for certain types of human-on-human causation.

    It was suggested by some grammarians, I don't remember if it was Visser or someone else, that the English make causative was a Middle English calque on the French faire causative. Analytic causatives are kind of rare and most of them seem to be based on verbs other than those meaning 'make'.

  39. bloix said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

    Oh, dear, my comment on the comma splice is confused and garbled. Measure twice, cut once, as they say.

    If you look at Key's manuscript, you'll see that there's no comma after fight, but there is a comma after watched:

    Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight
    O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

    This is not modern comma usage – it puts a comma between subject and verb phrases. To unpack the sentence, replacing whose with another pronoun, its, for ease of reading:

    Its broad stripes and bright stars were so gallantly streaming over the ramparts through the perilous fight we watched.

    And to build the sentence up piece by piece:

    Its broad stripes and bright stars were so gallantly streaming.

    Its broad stripes and bright stars over the ramparts were so gallantly streaming.

    Its broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight over the ramparts were so gallantly streaming.

    Its broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight over the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.

  40. Breffni said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    Bloix, I can't see how"perilous fight" can't be the antecedent of the relative clause "we watched" under the paraphrase you give. The two are separated by "o'er the ramparts". That's unparsable. You've got a relative split from its antecedent by an adjunct PP split from its VP:

    Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru [1 NP the perilous fight],
    [2 PP O'er the ramparts] [3 REL we watched] [4 VP were so gallantly streaming]

    1-3-2-4 or 1-3-4-2 would fit with your paraphrase, but the actual word order doesn't.

    You could analyse it as "the perilous fight [that] o'er the ramparts we watched", (i.e., the fight that we watched over the ramparts) but that apparently doesn't tally with the historical situation.

  41. Breffni said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

    That should read, "I can't see how 'perilous fight' CAN be…"

  42. Bill Poser said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    I didn't see the lyrics beyond the first verse until after I had lived in Japan, where the same tune is used with quite different lyrics for various departures, including the departure of ferries from port, so in a way to me the Japanese lyrics are the "real" ones. The Japanese version is entitled 蛍 の光 hotaru no hikari "light of the fireflies" and refers to a schoolboy studying by the light of a firefly lamp.

  43. bloix said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

    Its stripes were streaming.
    Its stripes through the fight were streaming.
    Its stripes over the ramparts were streaming.
    Its stripes through the fight over the ramparts were streaming.
    Its stripes through the fight we watched were streaming.
    Its stripes through the fight over the ramparts we watched were streaming.

    Hmm.

    I see your point, Breffni.

    And we did not watch the fight "over" (that is, looking over) the ramparts.

    Perhaps we were watching a fight over (that is, for control of) the ramparts? But that interpretation seems wrong as a matter of 18th century diction.

    So perhaps the stripes were streaming over the ramparts we were watching (to make sure that they were not breached, or to make sure our side's guns were still firing from them?)

    I'm going to go eat dinner and cogitate some more.

  44. Breffni said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

    This is the way I see it:

    [RelClause [NP (Whose) broad stripes and bright stars] [VP [PP thru the perilous fight] [VP [PP [P o'er] [NP [NP the ramparts] [RelClause (that) we watched]]] [VP were so gallantly streaming]]]]

    (If you paste that in here and click Draw you get a tree.) I'm not sure about some details, but I think the overall picture corresponds to the reading in which "ramparts" is the object of "watched". If it's correct, then the confusion is brought about partly by the fronting, within their VPs, of the two adjunct PPs, which is grammatical in this genre, but confusing because you end up with two adjunct PPs between the subject NP (broad stripes and bright stars) and the main VP (were… streaming). Plus there are at least two different places where suppressed relative pronouns might go.

    One difference with Mr Fnortner's reading: it can't be "we were watching the ramparts through the fight". "Thru the perilous fight" would have to go in the "we watched" clause for that to be the case ("o'er [the ramparts we watched thru the perilous fight]", or "o'er [the ramparts (that) thru the perilous fight we watched]"). It has to mean "the stars and stripes were streaming through the fight". I understood that to mean "flying throughout the battle", but maybe it could mean the flag was visible through the smoke.

  45. Ellen K. said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

    I think the fight was over the ramparts (that is fighting for control of the ramparts), and "we" were watching the fight. You have to ignore the link break between "right" and "over" and pretend it's not there.

  46. Faith said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

    @Jean-Pierre Metereau
    Oh! Thanks! I've been parsing that wrong since I was taught it in high school French, probably not more than thirty years ago.

  47. Mary Bull said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    Many thanks for the tree link and for the further analysis, Breffni.

    Beautifully done. It expresses my view of the situation exactly, even down to the ambiguity of whether "thru the perilous fight" means "visible throughout the battle" or "visible through the obscuring smoke of the battle."

  48. Nijma said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

    Here's a YouTube version of Auld Lang Syne with lyrics. They appear to know how to pronounce everything.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acxnmaVTlZA

  49. Troy S. said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    Well, thank you everyone. I had no idea just how weird the syntax of Christmas carols actually is. And not to neglect the possibility of pseudo-archaic hyper corrections. I don't know if we can apply that interpretation to Key's work (wow, it really is a mess to parse, after all, isn't it?) but it sure helps out a lot elsewhere.

  50. Jeffrey Kallberg said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 11:31 pm

    In looking at the Key manuscript to which Mary Bull linked above, I notice 2 things:

    1) It can't be a "first-draft," since it is written neatly and dated "Washington 21 Oct [18]40", just a couple years before Key died, and

    2) There's a textual variant in the second half of the first line that concerns us here. Instead of the version we know

    Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

    Scott instead wrote

    Whose bright stars & broad stripes, through the clouds of the fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming?

    I don't know that the alternate phrase and punctuation helps us solve the present puzzle over the object of "watched", but it does make me curious to know if there are earlier variant readings of the phrases in question.

  51. Xmun said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 2:17 am

    Many thanks to Suzanne Klemmer for her explanation of the archaic grammar of "till death do us part". The word order in my copy of the Book of Common Prayer (printed some time before Queen Elizabeth came to the throne)) is, however, "till death us do part". It makes no difference to the grammatical point, and for all I know the "do us" version may be found in other revisions, but I thought the discrepancy worth mentioning.

  52. Linda said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    It's still "till death us do part" in the current Anglican wedding service.

  53. Rolig said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    It makes sense that Key and Skinner under British guard were watching (not guarding, since they themselves were helpless) the ramparts – and the defensive artillery fire from Ft. McHenry – as the battle was raging (i.e. at twilight and throughout the night), and not especially the flag itself, however proudly they greeted its any glimpse of it they had from the light of the rockets and bombs. But at the twilight's last gleaming there was nothing noteworthy about the American flag flying over an American fort. That issue becomes important only when the gunfire ceases and the battle is over: which flag is now flying over the fort, in the early light of dawn?

    That said, generations of Americans have understood the phrase "o'er the ramparts we watched" in metaphorical terms, as meaning "we were protecting our country", as can be seen in this military poster: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Oer_the_ramparts_we_watch.jpg.

  54. Troy S. said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    After puzzling through the (never-sung) second verse of the Star-Spangled Banner, I think it's clear that the narrator's perspective is from the sea.

    On the shore, dimly seen, through the mists of the deep/
    Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes/
    What is that which the breeze o'er the towering steep/
    As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

    Therefore, the narrator's company are not standing watch over the ramparts or even looking at the flag from the vantage point of the ramparts. It must be the flag flowing over the ramparts, a fact which the narrator and company simply "bears witness" to.

  55. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    What is the problem with "stars and… stripes" as the object of "watched"?

    Whose bright stars and broad stripes [which] we watched were so gallantly streaming

    (Then two prepositional phrases specify that we watched them through the fight and o'er the ramparts.)

    Is the problem that the which of a non-restrictive clause is suppressed? (We're watching all of the stars and stripes, after all.) That doesn't strike me as improbable for poetry at the time. And the whole first and second verses are about watching the flag, not the ramparts, so I think we're justified in allowing Key some poetic license so we can read it that way.

    Thanks to Jeffrey Kallberg for copying in the original (or early) text, which I might not have looked at. That answered of the question of what meaning of "through" Key intended. By the way, "Whose bright stars and broad stripes" is hard for me to type, say, and sing.

    I read "foul footstep's pollution" differently from J. Goard. I think their footsteps cause the pollution; they don't constitute it. E. g., "We formed a committee of religious Jews and Arabs who would be affected by the factory's pollution…" from the Jerusalem Post. (Though most hits on factory's pollution seem to be in headlines.)

  56. language hat said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    And, like you, it's always been obvious to me that what "we watched" was "ramparts."

    Many people are saying this, but it simply doesn't make sense; in the dramatic circumstances, you might watch the flag or you might watch the fight, but why on earth would you spend the night watching the ramparts? Making sure they're soundly built, perhaps? I don't think there is a clear answer to the question (it's not even clear "watch" has an object), but if I were forced to choose, I would say "fight" is the object and construct an analysis to match. One thing's for sure: it's a terribly written stanza.

    [(myl) One pragmatic answer might be that the ramparts were pretty much all that they could see, during the anxious time as the sun rose when they were unsure whether the fort had surrendered or not. From the "Letter from Hon. Chief Justice Taney, narrating the incidents connected with the origin of the song", as printed in the Poems of the late Francis S. Key, 1857:

    He and Mr. Skinner remained on deck during the night, watching every shell [...] While the bombardment continued, it was sufficient proof that the fort had not surrendered. But it suddenly ceased some time before day ; and as they had no communication with any of the enemy's ships, they did not know whether the fort had surrendered, or the attack upon it been abandoned. They paced the deck for the residue of the night in painful suspense, watching with intense anxiety for the return of day, [...] and as soon as it dawned, and before it was light enough to see objects at a distance, their glasses were turned to the fort, uncertain whether they should see there the stars and stripes, or the flag of the enemy. At length the light came, and they saw that "our flag was still there."

    But anyhow, you're now committed to giving us an analysis of the syntax in which the object of watched is fight:

    Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

    I can see two ways to do that. One assumes that they watched the fight over the ramparts:

    … the perilous fight, [that] / O'er the ramparts we watched …

    But they didn't, really. At least, this is hardly more plausible than that they watched the ramparts. (In fact, the crux of the poem is to the fact that for some time before dawn, there was no sign of fighting, and though they could dimly see the fort as the sun rose, they had no idea whether it had fallen or not.) This analysis also seems inconsistent with the comma placement. (Also, I'm not sure the Key or other poets of the time would have fronted a PP within a relative clause with no relative pronoun or complementizer.)

    The other way to make "fight" the object assumes a kind of scrambing that I don't think we see elsewhere in Key's poetry (or other poems of the time):

    1. Whose broad stripes and bright stars
    2. were so gallantly streaming
    3. o'er the ramparts
    4. thru the perilous fight
    5. [that] we watched

    1. Whose broad stripes and bright stars
    4. thru the perilous fight
    3. o'er the ramparts
    5. we watched
    2. were so gallantly streaming

    Are you voting for the first analysis?]

  57. bloix said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    Language Hat – like you, I came into this debate sure that the object of watched must be fight. But Breffni has made me reconsider. As for your question, why would they be watching the ramparts: I’m a Marylander and I’ve visited Fort McHenry several times. It’s a traditional late 18th-early 19th century structure, with an inner ring of buildings (barracks, stables, magazines) arranged in a pentagonal shape, then a star-shaped wall built around that, and, on the three water sides, yet another set of earth-reinforced brickworks beyond the main walls. Most of the fort’s cannon are arrayed behind this outer wall. You can see the arrangement in any number of photos available on google images, e.g.,

    http://www.nps.gov/archive/fomc/home.htm
    http://www.travelbeat.net/sailing/archives/2008/07/bastion-of-baltimore-fort-mchenry.html
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/acordova/2945219913/
    http://usforting.com/tag/fort-armistead/page/2/

    The outer works would have been the “ramparts” visible from a ship in the harbor. So Key and Skinner would perhaps have been watching the guns firing from the ramparts.

    Sometime during the night, Key tells us in the second verse, the firing stopped. At dawn Key and Skinner stare in anxiety, unable to tell whether it’s the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack flying above the fort:

    On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
    Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
    What is that which the breeze o'er the towering steep,
    As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
    Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
    In full glory reflected now shines on the stream –
    'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
    O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

  58. Geoff Nunberg said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    It seems that the comments on this particular point have been carried over to Mark's subsequent post.

  59. John Cowan said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    myl: Thanks for the Taney quotation, which makes clear to me for the first time just how "the rockets' red glare [and] the bombs [i.e. shells] bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there": not by direct visual evidence (impossible in a time when "the fog of war" referred not to C3I troubles, but to black powder smoke) but by inference.

  60. swami said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    From my recollection of obscure Maryland history, Francis Scott Key was evacuated from a ship in the harbor by life-raft when he was saw the "flag was still there." I suspect "we" were watching the flag flying over the ramparts from the middle of the harbor, when he was terrified of being shot or taken prisoner.

    Well, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, you only need to know the first and last two lines of our anthem to make it sound good.

  61. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

    @Peter Taylor: Someone dared to desecrate "And Did Those Feet" with apostrophes? Here's how Blake punctuated it.

  62. Julie said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    If I take out all the modifiers, I end up with:
    Oh, say can you see …
    What so proudly we hailed?
    Whose broad stripes and bright stars (that)….
    we watched were so gallantly streaming?

    This is the way I've always interpreted it…the "broad stripes and bright stars" are being watched.

  63. language hat said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    The other way to make "fight" the object assumes a kind of scrambing that I don't think we see elsewhere in Key's poetry (or other poems of the time)

    But that's how I'd analyze it, if forced to. However, the stanza is so badly written it's impossible to say for sure how it was intended to be read.

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