July 29, 2014 by

On the use of the word ‘gotten’

23 comments

Categories: Research

Several UK readers have wondered about the use of the word ‘gotten’ in my medieval mysteries. Since the word is not in common usage in England right now, it seems odd to them to read it at all, and a glaring ‘Americanism’ in a book set in the medieval period. At first glance, this might appear to be yet another instance of ‘two countries separated by a common language,’ but as it turns out, the history of the word ‘gotten’ is a lot more interesting than that.

TGK blogGotten’ is, in fact, an ancient English word that was in use in England at the time America was colonized by the English. Over the centuries, the Americans kept on using it and the English did not.

Origin:  1150-1200(v.) Middle English geten < Old Norse geta to obtain, beget; cognate with Old English –gietan (> Middle English yeten), German-gessen, in vergessen to forget; (noun) Middle English: something gotten, offspring, derivative of the v.  http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gotten

“British English discontinued the use of “have gotten” as a form of the past participle for “get” over 300 years ago. The British Colonies on the other hand continued to use it. As a result American English continued the use of “have gotten” while British English relegated the word to obsolescence. It is now rarely used in the British version of the English language. American English continues to use “have gotten” to emphasis the action performed. In American English language “has got” implies possession. It is assumed that if “has got” is used that it is referencing what the person has in their possession. On the other hand, “has gotten” implies that the person acquired, received or obtained an item.”  http://www.reference.com/motif/reference/is-gotten-grammatically-correct  also: http://www.pbs.org/speak/ahead/change/ruining/

“Just seeing the word is enough to set the hair of some British English speakers on end. Yet, despite the many claims that it is an Americanism, it is most definitely of British origin and the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to the 4th century.

Since then, it has been used by many notable British English writers, including Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope and it was one of a number of words that were transported across the Atlantic with the settlers. But then it slipped out of use in British English, along with such words as fall for “autumn” (British English having opted to adopt the French word) and guess in the sense of “think”.” http://www.miketodd.net/encyc/gotten.htm

‘Got’ is used in Welsh–or at least as much of it as I have so far managed to learn. ‘I have got’ (mae gen i) is a common phrase in modern Welsh and even has its own system of conjugation (you have got, he has got). Of course, my medieval characters aren’t speaking English anyway, so whether they might have used ‘gotten’ as well as ‘got’, like their English counterparts, is something I don’t know! However, if my medieval characters were speaking English (which they generally are not), they would have used, ‘gotten’!

And for those who continue to be skeptical, perhaps a few quotes from Francis Bacon (written 1601) will suffice:

“This envy, being in the Latin word invidia, goeth in the modern language, by the name of discontentment; of which we shall speak, in handling sedition. It is a disease, in a state, like to infection. For as infection spreadeth upon that which is sound, and tainteth it; so when envy is gotten once into a state, it traduceth even the best actions thereof, and turneth them into an ill odor. And therefore there is little won, by intermingling of plausible actions. For that doth argue but a weakness, and fear of envy, which hurteth so much the more, as it is likewise usual in infections; which if you fear them, you call them upon you.” ‘Of Envy’

“And because it works better, when anything seemeth to be gotten from you by question, than if you offer it of yourself, you may lay a bait for a question, by showing another visage, and countenance, than you are wont; to the end to give occasion, for the party to ask, what the matter is of the change? As Nehemias did; And I had not before that time, been sad before the king.” ‘Of Cunning’

“Meaning that riches gotten by good means, and just labor, pace slowly … Riches gotten by service, though it be of the best rise, yet when they are gotten by flattery, feeding humors, and other servile conditions, they may be placed amongst the worst.” ‘Of Riches’

http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/bacon/bacon_essays.html

23 Responses to On the use of the word ‘gotten’

  1. Jody

    Despite all the responses which clearly cite gotten as an old English word, I still find it an Americanism in the way it gets used so often. To use it in a book where thee and thou and all those other long dropped words were still in play, it would not be out of place.

    However, we don’t write modern books using old English speak. So why are we slipping old English words in there? Especially British
    authors?
    We do not live in old English times I do not want an education in the way we used to speak in England when I read a book unless I am reading a book set in those times.

    It is old English I agree. But it is old and belongs in the past for British English speakers. It does not have a place in modern British English.

    This is why the word gotten rankles me when I read it.

    • Keith Strowger

      I agree completely. We were taught at our grammar school always to look for a suitable adjective as there is ALWAYS one which will replace “gotten” . This way we keep the English language rich.

  2. Jane Robertson

    Thanks for your article. I had previously thought gotten was incorrect English and kept correcting my family (I am now an Australian). I then looked to source its origin, I found it was old english. Whilst out of use in UK where I grew up and it is an abhorrent Americanism, I have come to view its use differently and no longer correct my children..I instead inform them of its usage and I see something fascinating about the evolution of a language I was brought up to see as fixed and now at 65 am seeing it as fluid (many words make me squirm…that is another story) Thanks for your input JaneR ?

    • Sarah Post author

      Oh, I am so glad to hear that! When I was at university at Cambridge, my linguistics professor loved to talk about American English as one of the most exciting languages on the planet because Americans (and honestly, English-speakers in general) weren’t caught up so much in what was ‘correct’ and were always willing to incorporate new words and borrow words from other languages to make them our own. Not that correcting your child’s grammar is necessarily a bad thing much of the time … but ‘gotten’ is, indeed, standard English in the US!

  3. Julie

    What really annoys me about the use of “gotten” is that American writers seem to have forgotten to use any other word! Characters don’t receive, arrive, become, grow,etc. Instead they have gotten there or gotten bigger! Very poor grammar in my opinion!

    • Sarah Post author

      Julie, that would be because you are English. It is not poor grammar in American English, and in fact, is very often seen as the most correct word. Sorry!

      • Julie

        Oh by the way! I am Australian not English . I assume you include the Irish, Scots, and Welsh when you refer to English. Perhaps you should look at novelists such as Tim Winton to compare how prose can be written using a wider vocabulary range.

        • Sarah Post author

          Julie–Thank you for engaging on my blog! I don’t know what American novelists in particular you are referring to. I am not disputing that American writers use ‘gotten’–just that it isn’t incorrect grammar and Americans use it in the way they use ‘was’ or ‘said’–so commonly that we don’t notice it. The point of the article I wrote was that UK English speakers (which includes Welsh, Scot, Irish, and apparently Australians) think the use of ‘gotten’ is bad grammar, which it is not and, in fact, was used in England up until the 17th century. The Welsh language includes the use of ‘got’ (as in “I have got”), but I couldn’t say if that translates to spoken English.

          In my latest book, Guardians of Time, my American characters use the word ‘gotten’ 7 times in 350 pages. The point is, for someone who speaks UK English, even one time is too many, but as the characters are American, it would be out of character not to use the word–even in the most educated person. Because, I reiterate, it is correct English, both for them, and for any character in a book set in England in a time prior to 1700.

          • Jules

            I speak and write Australian English not UK English. Unfortunately many of my students have become familiar with “Americanisms”. Many hours spent marking , correcting, underlining and comments suggesting better grammar and syntax seems to be working.

  4. C Monro

    I have been searching some time, for any written reference, or passage in Modern English literature, (anything at all really), for a written example of gotten.
    As there are so many references, by so many academics, to Shakespeare or bacon having used this word, that I would have expected to easily find a clear written example of this, and yet can not find one.
    In fact, I can find no written evidence anywhere, to back up any of these claims. If a reference of “ill-gotten” is given, as the two words are used in totally different contexts, it can not be used as an example.
    I have now “Gotten” to the point, where I think that it is in fact a myth, and that gotten, was never used by the English at all, and in fact it is an Americanism.
    However I am still prepared to be proved wrong if the correct evidence is shown to back up the claims.

    • Sarah Post author

      I don’t know what to tell you if you don’t believe the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces its first use to the 4th century, but here’s Francis Bacon, writing in 1601, 20 years before the Mayflower.

      “This envy, being in the Latin word invidia, goeth in the modern language, by the name of discontentment; of which we shall speak, in handling sedition. It is a disease, in a state, like to infection. For as infection spreadeth upon that which is sound, and tainteth it; so when envy is gotten once into a state, it traduceth even the best actions thereof, and turneth them into an ill odor. And therefore there is little won, by intermingling of plausible actions. For that doth argue but a weakness, and fear of envy, which hurteth so much the more, as it is likewise usual in infections; which if you fear them, you call them upon you.” ‘Of Envy’

      “And because it works better, when anything seemeth to be gotten from you by question, than if you offer it of yourself, you may lay a bait for a question, by showing another visage, and countenance, than you are wont; to the end to give occasion, for the party to ask, what the matter is of the change? As Nehemias did; And I had not before that time, been sad before the king.” ‘Of Cunning’

      “Meaning that riches gotten by good means, and just labor, pace slowly … Riches gotten by service, though it be of the best rise, yet when they are gotten by flattery, feeding humors, and other servile conditions, they may be placed amongst the worst.” ‘Of Riches’

      http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/bacon/bacon_essays.html

  5. A S

    Nice article, but I don’t think your research technique is sufficient here. The word “gotten”, as used in the Americas, is the past participle of the verb “to get”. Your etymological notes only establish that the infinitive form, not the “gotten” past participle, is of old English origin. It is beyond doubt, and very easy to prove, that the verb “get” is a common word of Germanic origin. However, to establish the use of “gotten”, you need to refer to the way in which both archaic and contemporary variants of “get” in various Germanic languages conjugate as past participles.
    In short, there are several dialects of the modern English language, one of which (American English) has “gotten”, but only as a past participle.

    • Sarah Post author

      Thank you for commenting! More educated minds than mine have said that ‘gotten’ as it currently is used, comes from England and was used before the 1600’s. Given the short article, I didn’t get into it further than that.

  6. Susan

    I loved this post! Then you for sharing these sorts of tidbits with your readers. For me, it enriches my reading experience of your books.

    I’ve got a great deal of respect for your research, and I have gotten so much enjoyment from your books. I reckon the After Cilmeri series is one of my favorites. I suppose I just have to wait, though, to find out what happens next to “the kids in Wales”. (They aren’t kids anymore, but I guess that label is stuck for my group of friends who are all hooked on the series with me. )

  7. John Cowan

    Gotten definitely is an Americanism even though it used to be used in Britain, just as I reckon for I suppose is now a Briticism even though we find it in Mark Twain (and I guess, which means the same thing, in Chaucer). Contemporary British English is no more and no less a descendant of pre-1700 English than contemporary American English, and each variety of English has made its own choices about which parts of the common stock to keep and which to discard.

    • Sarah Post author

      Yes–I think the argument is that English people can get up in arms about the vulgar and uneducated Americans saying ‘gotten’, when there is nothing uneducated about it. At worst, from an English standpoint, it’s archaic. What it isn’t, is ‘wrong’. 🙂 For example, one of my UK reviews for The Good Knight reads: “her grammar for medieval Wales is dreadful. These “American” expressions keep creeping into the story – which is pretty weak – at the best. Welsh/Celtic /Danish speaking people did not use “gotten” instead of had or a similar past tense…”

      Actually, they did. Since ‘gotten’ derives from Old Norse, at the very least, the medieval Danes did use it (as did the medieval English, of course). And maybe the Welsh 🙂

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