Aguilera and the Post diss those streaming ramparts

Jen Chaney, "Christina Aguilera botches national anthem at Super Bowl", Washington Post 2/6/2011:

Aguilera completely dissed both the ramparts and the fact that they were gallantly streaming by skipping that line entirely, instead singing: "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last gleaming." That was a pseudo-repeat of the earlier lyric, "What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming." If you missed it, catch the moment via the video below.

Last month ("Star spangled syntax", 1/2/2011) we discussed  the difficult syntax of The Star Spangled Banner, and learned that there are several different opinions about what "we" watched in the first verse:

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 through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming ;
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there :
O say, does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

In fact, it turns out that most people are rather vague about what the syntactic structure of the whole verse should be, and even after careful analysis and too-extensive discussion, disagreements remain. Still, it's a bit of a shock to learn that a Washington Post staff writer thinks that it's the ramparts that were gallantly streaming.

But the Post's editors — or perhaps its readers — seem to have been on the ball, because within a couple of hours of the time that Ms. Chaney's post went up, this note appeared:

This post has been updated to reflect a more accurate description of the "o'er the ramparts" lyric of our national anthem.

And the paragraph quoted above now reads:

Aguilera completely dissed both the ramparts and the fact that o'er them, we could see the broad stripes and bright stars gallantly streaming, by skipping that line entirely. Instead she sang: "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last gleaming." That was a pseudo-repeat of the earlier lyric, "What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming." If you missed it, catch the moment via the video below.

This lovely instance of the Bierce-Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law of Prescriptive Retaliation raises the question of just who dissed what, but for the record, here's my transcription of what Ms. Aguilera sang:

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 through the perilous fight,
What so proudly we watched, at the twilight's last ((st))ream((ing))
;
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there :
O say, does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Specifically, the fourth line, which should have been

O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming ;

What so proudly we watched, at the twilight's last ((st))ream((ing));

Ms. Aguilera apparently recognized that she'd taken a wrong turn, and ended the line not with "gleaming", but with a sort of muffled version of "streaming", where the initial /st/ is merged via t-deletion with the ending of "last", and the second syllable is almost completely swallowed, so that at first I thought it was just /ri:/, but  if you listen carefully with headphones it sounds uncomfortably like "reaming".

Ms. Chaney closed her article with a poll, whose first 36,539 votes came out this way:

She didn't ask whether we should be more bothered by a pop star who garbles some of the words of the national anthem, or by a journalist who clearly has no clue what the words mean. But she does give us a hint of her state of knowledge by offering as one possible answer "Who cares? And in a related question, does anyone know what a rampart is?" 13% percent of the respondents validated her position by choosing this option.

And one of the commenters supplied the answer given many years ago by Dave Barry, in "Refining Are Langwhich Skills", 1/11/1990:

Q-What is the correct way to spell words?

A-English spelling is unusual because our language is a rich verbal tapestry woven together from the tongues of the Greeks, the Latins, the Angles, the Klaxtons, the Celtics, the 76ers and many other ancient peoples, all of whom had big drinking problems. Look at the spelling they arrived at for "colonel" (which is, of course, actually pronounced "lieutenant"); or "hors doeuvres" or "Cyndi Lauper." It is no wonder that young people today have so much trouble learning to spell: Study after study shows that young people today have the intelligence of Brillo. This is why its so important that we old folks teach them the old reliable spelling rule that we learned as children, namely:

'I' before 'C,'
Or when followed by 'T,'
O'er the ramparts we watched,
Not excluding joint taxpayers filing singly.

EXCEPTION: "Suzi`s All-Nite E-Z Drive-Thru Donut Shoppe."

Q-What the heck ARE "ramparts," anyway?

A-They are parts of a ram, and they were considered a great delicacy in those days. People used to watch o'er them.

I feel that this points the way towards an admirable resolution of the problem.

[Hat tip to Rachel Shorey]

1. M Parker said,

February 7, 2011 @ 1:35 am

Ironic that you've spelled it "Aquilera" the first two times and "Aguilera" the rest of the time – Language Log, I know you know the importance of spelling! Sadly, more people haven't read the previous post on the anthem, so I doubt most of them understand the ramparts. I don't think it's solely the position of one journalist.

[(myl) I kept correcting that and then making the mistake again while writing the post — my fingers seem to want to put a 'q' in the context 'a_ui'. All the instances are correct now, I think. Consider it my own tribute to the Law of Bierce-Hartman-McKean-and-Skitt.

As for the Star Spangled Banner, Geoff Nunberg nailed it when he observed that "We like the incantations we recite on ritual occasions to be linguistically opaque". So it's by no means only Ms. Chaney who is confused about what our national anthem means. But gallantly-streaming ramparts is a misunderstanding too far, in my opinion.]

2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Aguilera and the Post diss those streaming ramparts [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

February 7, 2011 @ 1:48 am

[…] Language Log » Aguilera and the Post diss those streaming ramparts languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2949 – view page – cached Jen Chaney, "Christina Aguilera botches national anthem at Super Bowl", Washington Post 2/6/2011: Tags […]

3. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

February 7, 2011 @ 1:56 am

@ M Parker: hey, cut him some slack—Aguilera << (well, maybe) L. aquila (meaning 'eagle'). ;-)

4. D.O. said,

February 7, 2011 @ 2:33 am

I am so glad you linked to Dave Barry's column. Toward the end he lists the Happy Face as a punctuation mark. In 1990!

5. C Thornett said,

February 7, 2011 @ 2:43 am

Do you suppose that like extremist fatwas on anyone who creates an image of Mohammed, whether with offensive intent or not, someone will soon demand criminal sanctions against anyone who profanes or demeans the national anthem?

[(myl) Laws against flag-desecration, which have been an issue for some time, are a closer analogy.]

6. Dw said,

February 7, 2011 @ 3:39 am

She actually sang

"Oh say, can you, see"

As someone who has sung in public on occasion, I would suggest that the extra breath before "see" is an indication of early nervousness in the run-up to the first high notes.

Interestingly, the original punctuation, according to Wikipedia, was:

"O! say can you see…"

which would be even harder to sing.

7. Tom said,

February 7, 2011 @ 5:11 am

…sounds like "reaming"… unfortunate.

[(myl) On listending with headphone, I think that you're right. The initial /st/ merges with the ending of "last", due to t-deletion ("las' streaming"). As a result, you can parse it as "last reaming" rather than "las' streaming". The final syllable is very indistinct, probably because at that point she'd realized that the line was wrong, so at first I heard it as /ri:/.]

8. Aaron Toivo said,

February 7, 2011 @ 5:22 am

DW:

If that's how Key wrote it, he did it wrong. "Oh, say, …" is a common enough introductory phrase, but it's a phrasal interjection composed of two smaller interjections that form a unit together. Splitting the first one off with an exclamation point while integrating the second into the following sentence just does not reflect the syntax. Of the four possibilities below, the way he wrote it is the worst:

– Oh, say, can you see …
– Oh, say! Can you see …
– Oh! Say! Can you see …
?? Oh! Say, can you see …

Not only does it not reflect what I hope was the intended syntax, it does reflect a different syntax, in which the sentence is a surprised response to previous material. IMO, we are justified in writing and singing it the way it clearly should be.

9. Jon Weinberg said,

February 7, 2011 @ 6:09 am

@Aaron Toivo: The broadside printing of Key's poem has an exclamation point after "O", but the facsimile (handwritten) original does not: it reads simply "O say can you see". http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FA0615F8385F157A93C7A8178CD85F438185F9

[(myl) I took the punctuation from the version in Poems of the late Francis S. Key, Esq., Author of "The Star Spangled Banner." With an Introductory Letter by Chief Justice Taney (1857).

But it's quite wrong to suppose that the exclamation points and commas, whether in the punctuation practice of the early 19th century or that of today, necessarily mean anything at all about where to take a breath.]

10. Tim Silverman said,

February 7, 2011 @ 7:11 am

@Aaron Toivo: are you sure that "say" is just an interjection? I took it to be a straightforward imperative, equivalent to "Tell me:".

11. Peter Sattler said,

February 7, 2011 @ 7:40 am

More importantly, the handwritten version — cited above by Jon — reconnects lines 1-2 and lines 3-4 into a single question. (Specifically, the MS has a comma after line 2 and a question mark after line 4.) The latter pair of lines modifies and further describes the object (the "what") that we were hailing before night fell.

Those "broad stripes" and "rampart" lines also take place in that twilit past, not in the dark and still uncertain present of lines 5-6 — when the only evidence that the flag still waves is the fact that the bombing hasn't stopped. (This is another reason why lines 3-4 should not be connected to those that follow, but to those that come before.)

I know that the poem continues far beyond the scope of the anthem, but I've always thought it was neat that our national song stands primarily (75%) in the form of a question — wondering if we still have a future, any time that we sing it.

[(myl) Good points. But the first stanza of the poem refers to an even more uncertain time, when the bombardment had stopped, and it was unclear whether this was because the fort had fallen or because the British had given up the attack. From "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.'"
]

12. Chris said,

February 7, 2011 @ 8:35 am

The response "Who cares? And in a related question, does anyone know what a rampart is?" is pretty sad. It's never been easier to look up a word in the dictionary: if you are in front of a computer connected to the Internet, you can do so in less than 15 seconds. And if you know what the word rampart means, it's clear from context that it's not what is streaming.

13. Ellen K. said,

February 7, 2011 @ 8:38 am

Isn't it clear without context that the ramparts aren't streaming, for those who know what a rampart is?

[(myl) I take it that's why the WaPo's poll answer asked "does anyone know what a rampart is?", and also why Mr. Language Person took the question up back in 1990.

But in fact, on reflection, flag-like things stream only in a figurative sense. Literal streaming is what water and other fluids do, and the possible syntactic frames for fluid streaming include both cases where the subject of streaming is the fluid, and cases where the subject is its stream-bed, so to speak:

The tears were streaming down my burning face [W.H. Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, 1939]
And the scuppers were streaming with gore! [John Collins, The Naval Subaltern, 1804]

The second one would work for ramparts after an especially bitter attack.]

14. GeorgeW said,

February 7, 2011 @ 8:41 am

And now a lyrics malfunction. I can't wait until next year.

15. jfruh said,

February 7, 2011 @ 8:49 am

Another patriotic song whose gnarly syntax I've always kind of enjoyed is "My Country 'Tis Of Thee," which only seems to make sense if you think of it as someone talking and losing the thread and then backtracking a bit to make sure everyone still knows what they're talking about. "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty — of thee I sing!"

16. army1987 said,

February 7, 2011 @ 8:57 am

No matter how hard I try, I can't assign any other syntax to it than that with "o'er the ramparts we watched" being an adjunct, "we watched" being a relative clause modifying "the ramparts".

[(myl) That's also what I get. But re-read the comments here, and you'll see that other people's carefully-considered, well-reasoned, and empirically-supported opinions are different.]

17. Q. Pheevr said,

February 7, 2011 @ 9:35 am

Thanks for turning on your metaphorical dawnzer and shedding some lee light on the subject.

18. Pflaumbaum said,

February 7, 2011 @ 9:43 am

I reckon Language Hat and others in the earlier thread (including the linked Kurt Vonnegut) were a bit unfair to your anthem.

Sorry to go all lit crit or state the obvious, but the complex syntax is not just pompous Latinate/Miltonic filling, it has a mimetic function: it takes us (the listeners) a while to perceive that it's a flag we're hearing about, which rather nicely figures the time it takes us (the viewers) to perceive the flag in the early dawn light. Of course the broad stripes and bright stars are a giveaway, but we don't actually get the thing in plain view until our flag was still there, when our aching brains can relax (though only briefly on the semantic level, given the tense).

The shifts between holding out for the verb of the second relative clause, then waiting for the object of we watched, then realising that in fact the ramparts are the object and immediately discovering that the relative clause does indeed have a verb and there's an end in sight, summon up the clouds and shadows and false hopes/alarms as our eyes strain for the flag.

Besides, at least it's about freedom and courage and stuff. Ours just repeatedly exhorts a divine being to save a monarch, so she can continue to rule over us indefinitely. It's a terrible song.

Or maybe you just need to be an England cricket fan to appreciate that a tie/draw needs to be celebrated.

19. Faldone said,

February 7, 2011 @ 10:32 am

I don't see what all the fuss is. She was a lot closer with her "perilous" than most anyone else who's ever sung it in front of a stadium full of fans.

20. Robert Coren said,

February 7, 2011 @ 11:04 am

@Dw's observation about "Oh, say, can you, see" reminds me of a pet peeve of mine with reference to performances of the song: Almost every soloist I've ever heard perform it breathes after "spangled" ("Oh, say, does that star-spangled, banner yet wave?"), which mangles the sense. My view as a singer: If you can't sing the whole line in one breath, you're probably singing it too slowly (just about everyone does); in any case, if you must breathe during the line, plan ahead and put the breath after "say".

21. Pflaumbaum said,

February 7, 2011 @ 11:35 am

@Robert

I don't see how a breath there mangles the sense of the line. How else can you parse it than as an NP whose head is on the way?

Marvin Gaye, whose version here, tinnily synth-backed though it may be, is the greatest I've ever heard, pauses both after and before '-spangled' to reflect on the sheer enormity of it all.

22. Theophylact said,

February 7, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

"Streaming" may be a metaphor, but it's an old one. "Streamer" was in use for pennants in Tudor times:

[I]n the description of the lord mayor's procession in 1555, it reads "two goodly pennes (state barges) decked with flags and streamers, and a 1000 penselles."

[(myl) Indeed — that's part of the point. Hair and robes have been streaming or flowing or fluid since classical times, e.g. in Seneca's Oedipus:

inde tam molles placuere cultus
et sinus laxi fluidumque syrma.

But it's not out of the question that ramparts could be streaming with a literal fluid (e.g. blood), so we can't accuse Ms. Chaney of adopting a construal that makes no sense in any context.]

23. John Cowan said,

February 7, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

Pflaumbaum: Indeed, that is the purpose of Milton's convoluted syntax also: to get the images in the right order while still being technically grammatical.

24. Pflaumbaum said,

February 7, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

Yes, but I'm saying the convolution (as no doubt often in Milton) has a point in itself. That is, even if it had been possible to get the right images in the right order with simple syntax, it might have been less effective. The thing is difficult to make out.

25. Ray Dillinger said,

February 7, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

Regarding the syntactic structure of the National Anthem; it's two-and-a-half centuries old, and it was poetry when it was created. Unless you want to posthumously revoke Key's poetic license, it is utterly nonsensical to expect these lyrics to conform to mundane grammatical and syntactic structures in the first place.

So the singer mussed it up. She should've practiced more rather than simply assuming she knew it by heart. On the plus side, one of the more amusing parses of what she actually sang makes it into a proud statement about the singer's voyeuristic enjoyment of anal sex. Which is pretty much in line with the tradition of semi-inadvertent sexualization established with Jackson's "Wardrobe malfunction." I just wonder what they'll come up with next time.

Oh, and PS: Regarding Bill O'Rielly's suggestion about the happy face as a punctuation mark; it was considered and accepted by the Unicode committee. The character has been assigned code point 0x263A.

26. Jerry Friedman said,

February 7, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

@jfruh:

"My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love."

Put that in your pipe and parse it.

Of course, I can state confidently without data that 97% of children who learn this song think thee is the definite article and 92% think thy is an old-school variant of it.

@MYL: I bruised my ribs yesterday, and I'll thank you not to post anything like that Dave Barry excerpt for a while. (Okay, I just won't read it if you do.)

27. Ellen K. said,

February 7, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

@Ray Dillinger

The Star Spangled Banner was written in 1814.

28. KevinM said,

February 7, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

@Tim Silverman: I took it to be a straightforward imperative, equivalent to "Tell me:".
I'm pretty sure that's right. It is an urgent request for the news of the night. I picture the writer asking someone, like a watchman, who's better situated to see Ft. McHenry.
Otherwise, "Oh, say …" seems like a pretty offhand way of sliding into that sentence. Kind of like "Hey, by the way…" And "Oh! say…" seems like "Gee, I almost forgot …"

29. Robert Coren said,

February 7, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

OK, I shouldn't have said "mangles the sense", especially not in Language Log. Obviously the breath isn't going to cause listeners to misunderstand the text. But the space between an adjective and the noun it modifies is not a natural place for a break, and to my ear it sounds terrible.

30. Peter Taylor said,

February 7, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

I'm not sure how justifiable it is to say that

13% percent of the respondents validated her position by choosing this option.

given that there wasn't any other "Who cares?" option. Those who consider that to err is human but aren't diehard fans of Christina Aguilera or Lea Michele didn't have a great choice.

31. Charly said,

February 7, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

The HuffPo poll I saw gave a 3:1 advantage to Lea Michele over Christina (or Χtina, as they put it). Then again, most of the gleeks were probably 6 when Aguilera was big.

I objected more to her rather grandiose vocalistic stylings: a weird place between bel canto and karaoke.

Incidentally, I have sometimes used chi to signify my boyfriend (Christopher) on score sheets and such, since both our names start with "C." had never seen it for the singer, though.

I find it odd that the first verse of our national anthem is a question. It's hard to make it sound like a question since the notes descend (quite dramatically) in the end.

32. Garrett Wollman said,

February 7, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

I wonder how much of the difficulty numerous popular singers have faced — by no means is Aguilera alone — arises from the pressure to change the tune? Most people who sing the anthem professionally stick to the traditional tune, difficult as it may be, and tend not to famously flub the lyrics. But at these high-profile sporting events, there seems to be a tendency to have female singers sing much more slowly, and hold the high notes much longer, than the score calls for. Does this have an effect on the mnemonic power of the musical setting?

33. John said,

February 8, 2011 @ 10:09 am

Nobody's impressed that she didn't lip-synch?

34. ShawnaV said,

February 9, 2011 @ 9:57 am

This hubbub was especially funny to me due to a previous, localized scandal.

Oh and I really want to tell that reporter this bible verse I made up: "Let he with perfect syntax cast the first crenellation."

35. Bob C said,

February 11, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

I wonder how many people still think the last line of the first verse is "O'er the land and of the free…", mishearing the stretched out "la-a-and."

36. Darrell said,

February 14, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

myl: But it's not out of the question that ramparts could be streaming with a literal fluid (e.g. blood), so we can't accuse Ms. Chaney of adopting a construal that makes no sense in any context.

How would they be doing that "gallantly"? The scuppers were gallantly streaming with gore? Really?