Series: Get To Know English

What do the verbs receive, earn, fetch, understand, catch, reach, guess, communicate, affect, and capture have in common?

I think you’ve got where I’m going with this.

‘Get’ is one of the most flexible, yet confusing, verbs in English. It’s thrown around with such ease by its native speakers that rarely do we stop to ponder how saying “He got cold” (he became cold) and “He got a cold” (he caught a sickness) mean completely different things depending on the placement of the little word ‘a’. You can “get books” from a library, but that doesn’t mean you can become books nor catch them. A film can get to you, while a friend gets you. The team got (seized) the flag just before the end of the game, and got (received) the prize money soon after. The student got (guessed) seven questions wrong, got enraged, and got hold of the examiner to get revenge.

So how did ‘get’ get so commonplace? To get it, we need to get back to history and get involved. Ahem.

Linguists can trace semantic links between languages back to at least 6000 years ago. The lack of written remnants makes further investigation difficult, but we can grasp how our ancestors might have spoken to a reasonable degree by comparing similar words shared by languages within the same family. Modern English is an interesting case study as it is made up of a mix of European languages like Old German, Old French, Old Norse, Latin and Greek, with only a handful of Celtic words remaining as well. But all of these languages are considered to be a part of the same family, called Indo-European, which includes most European languages and even Persian and some South Asian languages, too. Even though we consider Germanic and Romance languages distinct, we can see how they are connected further back by observing the consonant shift with the letters ‘p’ and ‘f’, for example. Look at ‘father’ in German, ‘fader’, and the Spanish ‘padre’. Both can be reduced to the letters ‘adr’ with either a /f/ or /p/ sound at the beginning. Then English shifted the /d/ to a /th/ sound for Germanic words and a /t/ sound for the Latin ones, and now we use both ‘father’ and ‘paternal’. These patterns have been observed in many root words across Indo-European languages so that linguists have pieced together an earlier ‘Proto-Indo-European’ language they guess originated in the region north of the Black Sea and now connects the histories of people from Ireland to Bangladesh.

So how does this relate to ‘get’? Well, linguists believe the Proto-Indo-European word that started it all was ‘*ghed’, which meant ‘to seize/take’, and transformed into the Proto-Germanic ‘*getan’ and then Old Norse ‘geta’ (‘to reach/obtain/learn’) to settle as the humble ‘get’ we know today. However, in Old English ‘get’ was hardly ever alone: it was compounded in words like ‘beget’ and ‘forget’ and didn’t free itself until the dawn of Modern English. One could argue we’ve taken it back to its roots. Now the word takes us back to those Ukraine grasslands in our slang ‘geddit?’ or ‘geddoutta’ere!’. In casual spoken English ‘get’ springs to mind more often than its synonymous counterparts — it taps into a primordial sense of acquisition and ownership, of becoming, of assimilation.

‘Get’ is so heavy with meaning that it takes up whole pages in the Oxford Dictionary with all of its phrasal verb forms broadening the scope of meaning even still. Imagine the frustration of an English language learner faced with get in, get off, get up, get down, get over, get under, get away, get with, get away with, get about, get ahead, get by, get back, get on, get on with, and get through. Not only do each of these verbs differ from the definitions of a solo ‘get’, but each has its own cluster of meanings. If a student of English uses any of these with accuracy it should be applauded. Neither French nor German are as flexible with a verb. Spanish and Portuguese speakers fling about ‘quedar’ and ‘ficar’ respectively in much the same way English does with ‘get’ — where there is no consistency of meaning — but as neither language uses phrasal verbs as English does, the verb ‘get’ doesn’t seem to have a rival, at least in the Indo-European family.

And we can’t talk about ‘get’ without mentioning the past participle ‘gotten’ which is almost absent from British and Australian English, but still common in North America (“…and I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”) Conversely, most British English textbooks will teach ‘have got’ as well as just ‘have’ in regards to possession (eg “I’ve got a headache”), whereas that’s a construction unfavoured in American English, except in some dialects where they drop the ‘have’ and say “I got three pairs of shoes”. And in songs and conversation we all use the slang ‘gotta’ as the modal verb ‘have to’, as in: “It’s gotten dark and I’ve got an appointment in the morning, so I gotta get gone.”

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