On the use of the word ‘gotten’

Many UK readers have wondered about–and objected strongly to–the use of the word ‘gotten’ in my books. 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.

Gotten’ is, in fact, an English word that was in use in England at the time America was colonized by the English. It is found in the King James version of the Bible, and maybe even because of that, 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 also 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 ‘got’ as well as ‘gotten’, 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’


Welsh Idioms

To understand a language’s idioms, is to be fluent in the language.  Maybe this isn’t entirely true, but it’s close.

When I lived in England, I remember being stumped by the phrase, “it’s like money for old rope.”  I didn’t know if that meant: 1) someone had given me money for old rope–in which case, that was a good thing; or 2) I was paying money for old rope–meaning I was getting ripped off.  As it turns out, the saying “originates from the days of public hangings. It was a perquisite of the hangman to keep the rope used to hang his ‘customer’. The rope, however, was popular with the macabre crowds, so the hangman used to cut the rope up and sell it.”  That still doesn’t tell me whether paying for it a good or bad thing 🙂  This site tells me “if a job is money for old rope, it is an easy way of earning money.”

Welsh, then, has idioms too, many of which are undoubtedly impenetrable to an American as the English ones.  Many are the same or similar, which isn’t terribly surprising given that Wales was conquered by England 700 years ago.  Here are some that are similar to English and yet different:

Take care lest you buy a cat in a sack / = pig in a poke in English. (Cymerwch ofal rhag ofn i chi brynu cath mewn cwd.)

It’s raining old ladies and sticks / knives and forks / = cats and dogs in English. (Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn / cyllyll a ffyrc.)

They were tight like herrings in the salt / = sardines in a tin. (Roedden nhw’n dynn fel penwaig yn yr halen.)

My son was the candle of my eye / = apple of my eye. (Cannwyll fy llygad oedd fy mab.

I opened the door with my heart in my throat / = heart in my mouth. (Agorais y drws a’m calon yn fy ngwddf.)

The old woman always talked fifteen in the dozen / = nineteen to the dozen.  (Siaradai’r hen wraig pymtheg yn y dwsin bob amser.) 

The dog was as dead as a coffin nail / = as dead as a doornail. (Roedd y ci cyn farwed â hoelen arch.)


And then others that are nothing like English:

He rushed into the house with his breath in his fist / = in a great hurry. (Rhuthrodd ef i’r ty^ ‚’i wynt yn ei ddwrn.)

I’m ready to put the fiddle in the roof / = to give up. (Rwy’n barod i roi’r ffidil yn y tô.)

My grandfather’s in the fords of the river / = on his death bed. (Mae fy nhad-cu yn rhydiau’r afon.)

I’ll give my head for breaking / = I’m absolutely certain / they’ll get married. (Mi rown fy mhen i’w dorri y byddan nhw’n priodi.)

She talks like a pepper mill / = talks non-stop. (Mae hi’n siarad fel melin bupur.)

I’m looking forward to lighting a fire on an old hearth / = renewing an old love. (Rwy’n edrych ymlaen at gynnu tân ar hen aelwyd.)

She is the eye of her place / = totally correct in her opinion. (Mae hi yn llygad ei lle yn ei barn)

These idioms appear in Llyfr o Idiomau Cymraeg by R. E. Jones, published by Gwasg John Penry. The same author has also produced a second volume, Ail Lyfr o Idiomau Cymraeg.

And there’s more:  http://www.britannia.com/fame/fame.html

A horse in front = in the spotlight (ceffyl blaen)

Comes the sun to the hill = things will get better (daw haul ar fryn)

Like killing snakes = very busy (fell lladd nadroedd)

No Welsh between them = they’re not speaking to each other (Dim Cymraeg rhyngddynt)

The wheel has turned  = times have changed. (mae’r olwyn wedi troi)


Welsh Names and Places from the Books


Aberystwyth –Ah-bare-IH-stwith
Bwlch y Ddeufaen – Boolk ah THEY-vine (the ‘th’ is soft as in ‘forth’)
Cadfael – CAD-vile
Cadwallon – Cad-WA/SH/-on
Caernarfon – (‘ae’ makes a long i sound like in ‘kite’) Kire-NAR-von
Dafydd – DAH-vith
Dolgellau – Doll-GE/SH/-ay
Deheubarth – deh-HAY-barth
Dolwyddelan – dole-with-EH-lan (the ‘th’ is soft as in ‘forth’)
Gruffydd – GRIFF-ith
Gwalchmai – GWALK-my (‘ai’ makes a long i sound like in ‘kite)
Gwenllian – Gwen-/SH/EE-an
Gwladys – Goo-LAD-iss
Gwynedd – GWIN-eth
Hywel – H’wel
Ieuan – ieu sounds like the cheer, ‘yay’ so YAY-an
Llywelyn – /sh/ew-ELL-in
Maentwrog – MIGHNT-wrog
Meilyr – MY-lir
Owain – OH-wine
Rhuddlan – RITH-lan
Rhun – Rin
Rhys – Reese
Sion – Shawn
Tudur – TIH-deer
Usk – Isk

The Evolution of Welsh

The first thing you learn in linguistics is that languages evolve.  The second is that they are arbitrary.   This does not mean language isn’t important, or that it isn’t integral to culture. (see this article on Quebec’s policing of language).  It does mean that there is nothing inherent in the word ‘spoon’ that denotes the rounded tool with which you cook or eat.

Medieval Welsh, or Middle Welsh, was the language spoken in the 12th to 14th centuries.  Like when a modern English-speaker attempts to read Chaucer in English, it is possible for a modern Welsh speaker to read middle Welsh, which is the language of much of the Welsh literature (Four Tales of the Mabinogi, for example) that we have, although the tales themselves are much older.  You can find out about learning it here:


The root of the changes between medieval and modern Welsh lie in what linguists call ‘mutations’, mostly in initial consonents.  This site (http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~klausner/MUT.html) can help with that.

Old Welsh, on the other hand, is different yet again and not readily intelligible to Welsh readers.  This language dates from around 800 AD to the 12th century.   It is important to point out, however, that it is very hard to know if the pronunciation of words changed as much as the writing changed.  We cannot hear people reading these ancient documents out loud.  They may have pronounced words similarly to modern Welsh, but simply spelled the words differently.

Primitive Welsh dates to 550 AD, and derives from what linguists call British, or Brythonic, one of the Celtic insular languges which also includes Breton and Cornish.


This language borrowed heavily from Latin, not surprising since Rome ruled Britain from 43 to 411 AD.   An easy example of this is the Latin word, ‘draco’, which becomes ‘draig’ in Welsh and ‘dragon’ in English.  Many of these words with Latin roots have to do with religion, again not surprising given the use of Latin in the Christian Church:  “Sacramentum” has become sacrafen; “episcopus”, esgob; “ecclesia”, eglwys; “altar”, allor; “Caresima”, Carawys; and so on.”


The language spoken by the earliest Britains can only be guessed at as some proto-Brythonic, pre-Celtic language.  The people of Britain, prior to the coming of the Romans, were not literate, so there is no record of them or their history, beyond the material remains uncovered by archaeologists.

Welsh Surnames

It is a standing joke among people who know Wales that there are only a handful of Welsh surnames (last names), consisting primarily of Jones, Evans, Roberts, Thomas, Williams, and Davies. Among English speakers, these last names are clearly derived from first names. Why is that? Why don’t the Welsh have the huge variety of surnames like the English do?

The answer lies in the moment that the Welsh switched from the patronymic system of names (Sarah ferch Ronald; Carew ap Daniel) where a child’s name contained a first name, then ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of’, and then their father’s name, to a system where everyone in the family had the same surname.

In England, this transition occurred soon after the Norman conquest of 1066.

“Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname.

When communities were small each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further – leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard. Over time many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now not easily seen.

After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed on. So trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers’ names became fixed surnames -names such as Fletcher and SmithRedhead and SwiftGreen and PickeringWilkins and Johnson. By 1400 most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary surnames.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/surnames_01.shtml

In Wales, this process didn’t begin until after the Norman conquest of 1282. Sometimes a long time after: “In 1292, 48 per cent of Welsh names were patronymics, and in some parishes over 70 per cent …” The key is to understanding Welsh names is that “the stock of Welsh surnames is very small … attributable to the reduction in the variety of baptismal names after the Protestant Reformation.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_surnames

Martin Luther posted his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ in 1517. This page details how the reformation took hold in Wales on a larger scale than in Ireland and other regions of the UK. http://www.tudors.org/as-a2-level/wales-and-the-reformation/

It’s a strange progression to go from religious reformation to everyone in Wales having the last name ‘Evans’!

By contrast, there was a much greater variety of names in Wales in the thirteenth century and earlier.  http://heraldry.sca.org/names/welsh13.html

In comparison, among the English, the tradition of surnames was well established by the 13th century. From the subsidy rolls of 1292, everyone has a surname. “The largest group is formed by local surnames, those derived from place-names. Out of some 800 taxpayers no less than about 350 have names of this type …

Surnames of relationship derived from font-names number about 65, but some are more or less uncertain. Nearly all consist simply of a font-name, as (Reinaud) Abel, (Robert) Baudri, (William) Reyner. The only exceptions are (John) le fiz Michel, (William) fil. Marie. The last is the only indubitable case of a surname having been derived from a woman’s name, but a possible case is (Katherine) Swote. Most of these surnames, were probably patronymic or inherited. But it was common in early London for apprentices to take their master’s surname, or sometimes his font-name, for a surname. A certain case of the latter kind is (Ralph) Miles (Bridge), but probable ones are (Walter)Milis, (Richard) Pentecoste (Bridge), (Geoffrey) Fouq‘ (Walbr), (Richard) Wolmer (Bill).

The remaining surnames are mostly by-names or nicknames. About 130 persons have such names. There are a number of personal appellations, as the English Barn, Brother, Langman, Molling, Shailard, the French Bacheler, Cosin, le Fount, Galopin, Palmere, the German Winterman, perhaps Junkur; names of animals, English such asBulloc, Hog; Bunding, Pecoc; Burbat, Hering; Fros; the French Louet, Motun; Hairon, Partrys; various concrete words such as the English Fot (possibly a font-name), Gut, Heued; Cope, Hod, Punge; Box; Cros, Horn, Knotte; the French Oingnon, Pointel; abstract words, as possibly Leyk, May.

A good many surnames are derived from adjectives, mostly English, as Brun, Dreye, Dun, Flinthard, Gode, Grete, (le) Long (Lung), le Rede, Saly, Scharp, Skelfol, pwrgode, le Wyte, but some French, as (leBlund, Curteys, le Gay, Hauteyn, la Jouene, le Megre, le Rous, le Simple, Sotel. Bahuvrihi formations are the English Godchep, Hauekeseye, Langpurce, Lythfot, perhaps Capriht, Trigold, the French Deusmars, Trenmars. Skipop is a formation of the type Shakespeare.”  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=31906#s2



Scots, Scottish, and Gaelic … what’s the difference?

What language were people speaking in 13th century Scotland?

Undoubtedly, that is a question that keeps most people up at night.

In a nutshell, in 1288, in Scotland, people spoke three local languages regularly.  At the time, they called them:  French, English, and Scottish.

What is confusing is that those are not the names used to refer to these languages NOW.  French, was Norman French. Robert the Bruce, a great King of Scotland, descended from the Gaelic Earls of Carrick, and on his father’s side from “ancestors in Brix, in Flanders. In 1124, King David I granted the massive estates of Annandale to his follower, Robert de Brus, in order to secure the border. The name, Robert, was very common in the family.

Brought up at Turnberry Castle, Bruce was a product of his lineage, speaking Gaelic, Scots and Norman French.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/independence/features_independence_bruce.shtml

This article makes a mistake, however, which I have highlighted–or rather, not a mistake because Bruce really did speak those languages, but it isn’t clear to the layman that Bruce would not have called them that.

The transition is as follows:

Old term         New term

French            Norman French

Scottish          Gaelic

English           Scots

Norman French:  “When Norse invaders arrived in the then-province of Neustria and settled the land that became known as Normandy, they gradually adopted the Gallo-Romance speech of the existing populations – much as Norman rulers in England later adopted the speech of the administered people. However, in both cases, the élites contributed elements of their own language to the newly enriched languages that developed in the territories.

In some cases, Norse words adopted in Norman have been borrowed into French – and more recently some of the English words used in French can be traced back to Norman origins. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Norman language spoken by the new rulers of England left traces of specifically Norman words that can be distinguished from the equivalent lexical items in French.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_language

Scots:  What we know today as ‘Scots’ was not called that in 1288.  It was called ‘English’. Scots is a dialect of English spoken by the lowland people of Scotland. “Scots is a Germanic language closely related to English and spoken by about 1.5 million people in Scotland. Scots is descended from the language of the Angles who settled in northern Britain, in an area now known as Northumbria and southern Scotland, in the 5th century AD. The language was originally know as ‘Inglis’ and has been influenced by Gaelic, Norse, Latin, Dutch, Norman French, Standard French and English.

By the 14th century Scots was the main language of Scotland and was used in literature, education, government and in legal documents.”  http://www.omniglot.com/writing/scots.htm

Gaelic: Gaelic was called “Scottish” in 1288 Scotland (thus, the three languages as understood by the people at the time: French, English, and Scottish).

“The Scottish people originated with Gaelic-speaking incomers from North Eastern Ulster who settled in the North Western coastlands and islands of Caledonia in the later fifth century, and subsequently relocated their kingdom of Dal Riata from Ulster to Argyll, ‘the coastland of the Gael’. This subsequently grew by absorption of the Picts in the east, and conquest of the Britons and Angles in the south, into what came to be called Scotland by the 11th century. Viking settlements in the Northern Highlands and Northern Isles from the end of the 8th century established the Norn language which survived in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland until the eighteenth century.

Under the kingship of Malcolm III “Ceannmòr” (1054-96) Gaelic began to lose its preeminence at court and amongst the aristocracy to Norman French, and in the Lowland area to the Anglian speech of the burghs, which were established first in eastern Scotland by David I (1124 – 53). This speech was known firstly as Inglis, and later as Scots, and it rapidly became the predominant language of the Scottish Lowlands, meaning that by the later middle ages Gaelic had retreated to the Highlands and Hebrides, which maintained some degree of independence within the Scottish state.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/multilingual/scots_gaelic_history.shtml

Gaelic is the traditional language of the Scotti or Gaels, and the historical language of the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how long Gaelic has been spoken in what is now Scotland; it has lately been proposed that it was spoken in Argyll before the Roman period, but no consensus has been reached on this question. However, the consolidation of the kingdom of Dál Riata around the 4th century, linking the ancient province of Ulster in the north of Ireland and western Scotland, accelerated the expansion of Gaelic, as did the success of the Gaelic-speaking church establishment. Placename evidence shows that Gaelic was spoken in the Rhinns of Galloway by the 5th or 6th century.

The Gaelic language eventually displaced Pictish north of the Forth, and until the late 15th century it was known in Inglis as Scottis. Gaelic began to decline in Scotland by the beginning of the 13th century, and with this went a decline in its status as a national language. By the beginning of the 15th century, the highland-lowland line was beginning to emerge.

By the early 16th century, the Gaelic language had acquired the name Erse, meaning Irish, and thereafter it was invariably the collection of Middle English dialects spoken within the Kingdom of the Scots that came to be referred to as Scottis (whence Scots).”  http://www.savegaelic.org/gaelic/scottish-gaelic-history.php

How did Latin get into English?

It was the Romans right?

Well, ultimately, but not necessarily because they conquered Britian in 43 AD.

The Romans controlled Britain from 43 AD to when they marched away in the beginning of the 5th century.  During that time, they built roads, towns, forts, and established a government.  Upon their departure, the ‘dark ages’ consumed Britain, with the assistance of several invading groups (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, plus Picts, Scots, Irish).

The people who lived in Britain at the time were Celtic and spoke a language that eventually became what we know today as Welsh.  As the story goes, these invading groups pushed the Britons into Wales until a real wall (Offa’s Dyke) permanently created a barrier between them.

Latin had been spoken by the Romans, of course, and had entered the Welsh language as a result.  “These borrowed words are usually for things foreign to the British before the conquest, such as ‘pont’ (in Latin ‘pons’, a bridge), ‘bresych’ (‘brassica’, a cabbage), and ‘eglwys’ (‘ecclesia’, a church).”  http://tinyurl.com/74lgnl4

Percent of contribution of other languages to English

Latin had been the language of writing.  With the departure of the Romans, that also abated, until the coming of the Christian Church (first) and then the arrival of the Normans in 1066 (second).  The Normans were descendants of the Vikings but had adopted French as their language.  Thus, when William conquered England, he brought the language with him.  French is a ‘Romance’ language–a language derived from Rome, and thus, Latin.

For several hundred years afterwards, French was the language of the nobility, laid over a Saxon peasantry.  The Saxons spoke “English” (though interestingly, the Welsh still refer to the English as ‘Saxons’).  Over time, the Saxons adopted French words (and thus Latin words) into their vocabulary.

The French words didn’t necessarily replace the English ones, but coexisted alongside the Saxon ones or were adopted whole cloth:  “A lot of basic French vocabulary will look familiar to you: le restaurant (restaurant), la table (table), l’âge(age), lefruit (fruit),  l’hôtel (hotel),  l’animal (animal),  and so on. However, don’t be fooled by some words that may look or sound exactly the same as an English word, but don’t have the same meaning. For example, le collège is roughly equivalent to middle school in the United States, not university. Also, sale in French means dirty, and has nothing to do with discounts, and blessé(e) means wounded, not blessed.”    http://www.fodors.com/language/french/

30% of English words have a French origin with another 30% from Latin.  The borrowing from Latin (and Greek) is clear.  From a rap song I found on line:

“aqua” means water, “ami” means love
“bio” means life, “hemo” means blood
“geo” means earth, and “vita” means life

“pre” means before, and “fix” is to attach
“anti-” means against, “inter-” means between
“poly-” means many, while “homo-” means the same
“pseudo-” means false, and “trans-” mean across

“-ology” means study of, “-ism” is belief in
“-cide” means killing, and “-or” and “-er” mean demonstration
“-phobia” means fear of, “-kinesis” means movement


The Saxon, however, endured too.  For example, we have two words for ‘eat’:  ‘eat’ which is Saxon, and ‘dine’ which comes from the French word ‘to dine=diner’.  Another example is ‘go’, obviously Saxon, and ‘voyage’ from French.  “Many [Saxon] words had a single syllable, and compounding was a common practice. Most words with more than one syllable were characterized by a stress accent on the first syllable.”  http://www.ibiblio.org/lineback/words/sax.htm

Here is a list of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Anglo-Saxon_origin