This evening I was at a strange but rather entertaining event, an attempt to break the record for the number of languages in which the well-known Scots song Auld Lang Syne has simultaneously been sung. I think the organisers of this wacky happening at Glasgow University were hoping for 100 languages. They got nowhere near that number, but given that the standing record is apparently nine, success never seemed in doubt.
The BBC, true to its preference for speed over accuracy, and for reporting as news things that haven’t actually happened yet, was quick off the mark. Three minutes before the event even began, their website was reporting that languages sung had included “Persian, Arabic, Malay, Vietnamese, Frisian, Hindi, Urdu, Irish Gaelic, Romanian, Scots, Welsh, Ukrainian, Yoruba, Swahili, Catalan, Bangla, Maori, Chichewa, Georgian, and Igbo”. Given that the words of the song are in Scots, it would be surprising if that had not been on the list, but I can personally vouch for the regrettable fact that Yoruba and Welsh were not involved.
In the end the total was apparently 41 languages, sung by perhaps 200 people. An easy victory, but surely, in a university and city as large as Glasgow, there could have been more? Leaving aside the issue of putting the word about effectively, the limiting factor may well be the availability of translations. I had been hoping to sing in Welsh, and apparently several other Welsh speakers had volunteered themselves, but I for one had been unable to find a translation on the Web, and there wasn’t nearly enough time to write a serviceable one (even if I didn’t have other things to do). So I ended up being recruited to sing in Latin and felt very academical.
I had naively expected to find an Auld Lang Syne website somewhere with translations in dozens of languages, but no luck. My theory, for what it’s worth (and I think this was confirmed by tonight’s event), is that while in the world at large, especially perhaps Eastern Europe and the Far East it is felt to be as international as Happy Birthday To You, in the UK it is seen as an emblem of Scottish culture. Hence to translate it into Welsh would be rather like putting Gaelic words to Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. Only one person showed up to sing in Hungarian, but she had two versions of the text to choose between. However, several admirable people had brought along their own specially-crafted translations, and perhaps these will find their way onto the web for future occasions.
So what do 41 languages sound like, sung together? I would have loved the chance to move around the hall between different groups of singers, actively experiencing the effect, but the main impression from the midst of it (just between the Japanese and the Lithuanians — wot no Kurdish?) was of rhythmic sibilants. Presumably with that many languages going on someone or other will be singing an s sound on almost every syllable, and that’s what really penetrates the general wash of sound.
There was something very fine about seeing languages bravely represented by a single individual. I was delighted to be singing near to a native speaker of Sami (the language of what we used to call the Lapps), and later to chat to the only Georgian speaker. But my heart went out even more to a small contingent singing a language of which no-one (probably) is a genuine native speaker: Esperanto. The Latin of the twentieth century? One of them, a splendidly geeky-looking girl, told me as she left that next time she would do it in binary.