[DWJ] Re: Gotten and other issues in English

Jameela Lares Jameela.Lares at usm.edu
Fri May 16 08:18:21 EDT 2008

My apologies for chiming in late on this discussion; I read the digest and am
even late doing that.  If I could just speak to some of these issues as someone
who has taught the history of the language:

1.  There are several morphological differences (i.e., having to do with word
form rather than word order) between British and American Englishes.
Got/gotten is one that gets mentioned.  (I'd mention some others, but my old
textbook is in my office at school.)

2.  English is a Germanic language, marked by such features as initial syllable
stress (ROB-ert, MAR-tin, etc.) and still having all seven classes of "strong"
verbs, which change tense in the vowel, rather than "weak" ones, that changes
tense consonantally with -ed.  The tendency, however, is for strong verbs to
become weak ones, that is, to move to the default -ed version, so we have many
forms that are now archaic.  We also have some disambiguated forms, such as
"hung" (old strong version) for most uses of the past participle of "to hang,"
but "hanged" for the action of execution.

3.  English used to have "synthetic" rather than "analytic" syntax or word
arrangement, that is, one based on a heavy system of inflections, like Latin.
Because of the initial syllable stress, however, the old inflections were less
and less important, and now syntax in English is analytic, dependent on word
order rather than word endings.  This feature of English makes it particularly
liable to "functional shift," where one part of speech can become another.  "To
gift" does indeed have the sense of "to formally bestow" in American law.  I
suspect that advertisers use it as a verb because they know it is irritating
and therefore memorable.

4.  One has a strong emotional investment in one's own language.  A friend who
regularly teaches grammar at the university level cautions her students on the
first day that they will eventually find themselves embroiled in remarkably
angst-ridden arguments about usage.  Then, several weeks later when emotions
are riding high, she reminds them that they are experiencing what she'd warned
them about.

5.  And yes, language changes.  To quote from bits of Samuel Johnson's Preface
to his Dictionary:  "Academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of
their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their
vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and
subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are
equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its
strength . . . . Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen;
conquests and migrations are now very rare: but there are other causes of
change, which, though slow in their operation, and invisible in their progress,
are perhaps as much superiour to human resistance, as the revolutions of the
sky, or intumescence of the tide . . . . There are likewise internal causes
equally forcible. The language most likely to continue long without alteration,
would be that of a nation raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity,
secluded from strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniencies of
life."  Otehrwise, we'd all still be speaking Old English.

Yours in all pedantry,

Jameela Lares, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of English
The University of Southern Mississippi
118 College Drive, #5037
Hattiesburg, MS  39406-0001
601 266-6214 ofc
601 266-5757 fax

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