The Meaning of Gota

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Mar 21, 2015

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

I have always admired people who know more than one language. Unfortunately, I was born one generation late or I would have grown up bilingual. I studied Greek, Hebrew and German as part of my academic pursuits but being able to read language is very different than being able to speak language. 

My parents and their contemporaries spoke fluent Pennsylvania Dutch. They learned it from their parents and speaking it was just a way of life for them. In our home, though, they only spoke it when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying, and when we started to understand it, they stopped. 

I also admire people who use vocabulary words I don’t know. Recently I had a guest in my office who shared her appreciation for the artifacts I placed in and around my books. She described them with a French word I had never heard. I don’t remember it but she said it essentially meant “knickknacks,” which she preferred not to use because she felt it was too pedestrian for the occasion. 

With my interest in language (in general) and vocabulary words (in particular), my friend Dr. Dan Mortensen definitely had my attention when he asked this question of several of us, “Do any of you know the meaning of the word ‘gota’?” After a few facetious attempts, we all had to admit we did not know. 

He said only nine people in the entire world knew the meaning of ‘gota’ but there was about to be four more. Dan has two grandsons, Wyatt and Levi. Levi is the youngest at one-and-a-half yearsold and he is just beginning to talk. Little Levi coined the word ‘gota’ as his word for “drink.” Whenever he wants a drink, he uses it and Dan hears, “Papa, get my drink for me.” 

No wonder Mira Grant said, “Words have power.” Jim Maza, our university attorney, often says as he is shaping a legal document, “Words matter.” And for little Levi, even a word that he makes up has deep meaning, and for him, it matters immensely. And his Papa responds accordingly.

Dan went on to say that language has six purposes: 

Expressive: Through language we express our feelings, ideas, attitudes, thoughts, etc.

Informative: Through language we convey information to someone ​such as on a bulletin board, textbook, formal document, movie guide, etc.

Poetic: The manner in which we manipulate language communicates unique meaning. The word order or the word sound or the word meaning can in itself capture something special. As someone said, “Great literature is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
Phatic: Language can be used to establish contact or to make a connection ​such as when we say “Hello” or “Good morning” or “How are you doing?”

Meta-Linguistics: This is the study of the use of language.

Cognitive: We all use language to get someone to do something such as trying to persuade or entertain or encourage. 

Though he did not know the formal use of his coined word, Levi was actually using the cognitive purpose of language because he was trying to persuade someone to get him a drink. Specialists have been teaching parents how to communicate with their young children in sign language even before they can speak language. 

We often say things like “Everyone smiles in the same language” and “Music is the universal language.” Henry David Thoreau said, “The language of friendship is not words but meanings” and Edmund Wilson said, “No two persons ever read the same book.” 

Little children can teach us much about communication. Levi’s use of ‘gota’ reminds us that words matter but he also reminds us that the meaning behind those words matters even more. 

Now you also know the meaning of ‘gota.’  

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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