Gotten vs got: what a literary critic needs to know.

I was considering myself as on summer leave from all things linguistic, but I can’t let this howler from Carmen Callil go unremarked. In case you don’t know of her, Ms Callil is a writer and critic of some renown, and a founder of the Virago Press, so she is someone whose literary opinions carry considerable weight. Among many other things, she does book reviews for The Guardian newspaper and it is here that her recent review of Julie Orringer’s book The Invisible Bridge is to be found:
 The book tells the story of Andras Levi, a Hungarian studying in Paris at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in the late 1930s. He falls for Klara Morgenstein, and the lovers’ tale unfolds against the backdrop of  anti-Semitism and the fate of Hungary’s Jewish population during World War II.

Now, I have no way of knowing whether Ms Callil’s lukewarm review is fair or not as I have not read the book and anyway I am not a literary critic, but there’s one criticism of hers that I am qualified to judge. And I judge it as bad linguistics.

Ms Callil does not like Ms Orringer’s “insistent use of the American idiom, as the text swells with ‘gottens’, each sounding out of place on the desperate tongues of hounded European Jews in the 1930s and 40s.”  We don’t know for sure which language Andras and Klara chose for conducting their love affair. Perhaps it was Hungarian, or (maybe more likely) perhaps it was French. It might just possibly have been Yiddish. But it certainly was not English. However, for the purposes of telling the story to an English-speaking audience, the words of Andras and Klara, and of Andras’ two brothers Tibor and Matayas, have to be imagined as English. So why not American English? Ms Orringer is an American and she’s writing in her native tongue for an audience which shares it. Why is American English any more ‘out of place’ on the lips of Hungarian and French Jews than British English would be?

 If Ms Orringer has littered her book with current American slang such as ‘I am so, like, over Paris’, Ms Callil might have had a point, but the point would be that current slang of either British or American origin would be jarringly anachronistic. But there is nothing slangy about ‘gotten’ as the American past participle of ‘get’. It was common usage for centuries in British dialects and was exported in the 17th century to the American colonies where it remains to this day, having gone extinct (except in ‘forgotten‘) in the motherland. It’s one of those uses that British pedants mistake for a pernicious American ‘innovation’ when in fact it is a venerable and harmless survivor from former times. (Ditto ‘fall‘ for ‘autumn’, and ‘I guess’ for ‘I suppose’.)

A likely explanation for Ms Callil’s criticism is that American English clashes with her inner voice which has given these desperate characters a nice British Received Pronunciation. If so, she should be honest enough to own up to this personal prejudice and not try to argue, ridiculously, that Ms Orringer would have written her book more authentically in the Queen’s English.

One thought on “Gotten vs got: what a literary critic needs to know.

  1. Really, really, really late, but I MUST mention that you have forgotten ill-gotten as in so many of our English gains.

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