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Monday, September 19, 2011

Get, got, ....?

Just to make people's lives miserable, I suspect, usage pundits like to seize hold of common everyday words and make up "rules" about them which are the exact opposite of what Joe Language User would do if left to his or her own devices. After all, how would one get a power trip if one made rules only about words people rarely if ever use, or if one said, "Go ahead, what you say intuitively is ok"?

The past participle of "get" is such a case: there is a tradition among usage books maintaining that "gotten" is wrong or obsolete. It is indeed obsolete for the British, but it is alive and kicking in North America, so the question is: is it wrong?

Considering that it is one of the most frequent words in English, you might expect "get" to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, but in fact we owe it to the Vikings. For them, the infinitive was geta, the simple past gat, and the past participle getenn. But English verbs with an e vowel commonly changed that vowel to an o in the past participle, as in "steal" becoming "stolen". So when this Old Norse word was borrowed into English in the 1200s, people used the familiar conjugation pattern, and getenn became goten. The vowel in goten even migrated over to the simple past, so that "gat" became "got" by the 16th century (although you will still hear "gat" occasionally in quotations from the King James Bible, dating from 1611). As time went on, the English abandoned gotten in favour of got for both the simple past and the past participle (though they maintained the distinction with "forgot" and "forgotten").  But, like many older forms abandoned by the English, gotten has survived in North American English. So, if anyone tells you it's obsolete, ignore them!

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I wonder if there are many SUCH (not vaguely similar) examples.

    Only "proved-proven" comes to my mind. I also wonder if the "-en" forms didn't hold better on this side of the "pond", because there were more German (or Germanic) people here than in the UK.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.