Something of a debate sprung up today over at Leg-iron’s about the word “gotten” used in place of “got”. Leggy said that he would never use the word. But I said I liked it. I think it’s a rather musical word, as in “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (Gene Pitney 1967). The line wouldn’t scan if “gotten” was replaced with “got”. I said that I thought it was an American word, and therefore most likely an old English word that had fallen out of use in England. Several people agreed. Anyway we still use “forgotten” and “misbegotten” and even “ill gotten gains”.
A bit of searching turned up this:
Although the British stopped using the past participle gotten about three hundred years ago, the American colonists and their descendants–especially in New England–still tend to use it.
Some English teachers have tried to ban its usage to make American English conform to British English, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth century when there was a movement to purify English. Others are just not used to its use because it is not used in their region and hear it as an error.
Ultimately, language is convention.
“Gotten” is an old English word that has been preserved in America, and I’ve re-adopted it. There are quite a few American words I’ve adopted. Like “movie”. In England, they are called “films”. But I prefer movie, because movies move, and a film is just a sheet of acetate.
I have the idea that “Yeah” is another one of these returning prodigal sons, re-introduced in the 60s by “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, and once again derived from old English “Yea”.
“OK” or “okay” is another one which I think has arrived from America. But it may be German in origin, as in Alles Korrect. But it may also be Choctaw or West African.
It reminds me of the time back in 2003 when I hung out on US discussion forums, and found I could easily pass myself off as an American. All I had to do was make sure that I spelled colour as “color” and honour as “honor” and humour as “humor”, and threw in the occasional “y’all”, and everyone thought I was trailer trash living a block or two off the main drag of Lima, Ohio. Although one American emailed me and said she was having an argument with her English husband about me: she was convinced that I was American, but he was equally convinced that I was English. So I owned up. Or, as they say in America, fessed up.
In recent years I’ve begun to think that, now that English has become the principal international language, these differences will probably get ironed out, one way or other. Which spellings are likely to prevail? Will it be the honour of the British Parachute Regiment, or the honor of the US Screaming Eagles? I rather think that it will be the latter, firstly because it involves one less letter, and also because someone in the comments over at Leg-iron’s was suggesting that the added ‘u’ in the English “colour” was a French infection. Some words have already succumbed: the English billion used to mean a million million, but now it means the same as the US thousand million.
There are quite a few of these problem words. In English, smoking a cigarette is often called “having a fag.” But in America that means something like “having sexual relations with a homosexual.” And US cars have hoods while English ones have bonnets. And in England we walk along the roadside pavement, while in America they use the sidewalk. And I must say that simple constructions like “sidewalk” or “boardwalk”and “roadkill” strike me as good pieces of descriptive English that don’t need any explanation.
Another one is the English “maths” versus the American “math” (as in “Do the math!”). I still stick with “maths”, because it’s short for mathematics, which has an ‘s’ on the end. But a week or so back I was watching a YouTube of some English mathematician who kept talking about “math”, and I had the feeling that this was another one that the Yanks were going to win.
But there’s no way – absolutely no way ever – that I’m going to start referring to “chips” as “French fries”. I’ll fight to the death over that one. Yes, sir. I’ll maybe even go down fighting for English “bangers and mash”, although I found out recently that sausages only started getting called “bangers” because the wartime versions of them used to explode after they were given plastic skins. I haven’t seen a pork sausage do that for a long, long time.
In our increasingly globalised world, it’s not just English and American which are coming into stronger collision than ever in the last four centuries. There are also all the other languages. The English language is permeated with a great deal of French, as in en masse and raison d’être and sangfroid. And from Germany we have zeitgeist and blitz and schadenfreude. And from Italy La Dolce Vita. And from Russia apparatchik. And lots more.
And then there are all the new words that come with improving technology, like “email” and “internet” and “blog”.
In all this, I’m not really sure why English has come to predominate. I used to think that it was simply because there used to be a (surprisingly large) British Empire, which has since been largely supplanted by a US Superpower, and we could just as easily have been speaking French or German or Spanish if the events of history had taken a slightly different turn. But while translating some English into German not long ago, Reinhold remarked that English sentences tended to be more compact than German. And maybe that’s the reason. A compact language takes up less space, and uses less ink, and requires less effort. So English is perhaps a Least Action language.
But I’m far from convinced that English is that good a language. When I visited Spain in recent years, and studied Spanish a bit, I was delighted to find that it was probably about as near to Latin as anyone can get. I studied Latin at school, and loved the language because it was so regular and rational. Greek – Ancient Greek, anyway – is very similar. And I couldn’t help but think that if Greece had produced all those philosophers and mathematicians and so on, it was probably because they had a rational language that encouraged – and maybe even enforced – rational thought. Much the same might be said of the Romans. And English always seems to me to be far too irregular and irrational to match the clarity and simplicity of those two languages. And if we’re living in a mad, mad, mad world these days, it’s perhaps because we speak English.
Sic transit gloria mundi, y’all.