Hard G or soft G? That is the question. As GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) files take up more and more space on our hard drives thanks to sites like Tumblr and Reddit, “GIF” has also made its way into our offline vocabulary. The Oxford American Dictionary even named GIF the word of the year for 2012. The debate between GIF, as in “gift,” and GIF, as in “jif,” may seem trivial (see Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book), but such insistence on definitive, correct pronunciation reveals the malleability of the English language.
From the dawn of the Internet Age, GIF files have defied pronunciation. Inventor Steve Wilhite and CompuServe introduced the GIF in 1987, two years before the launch of the World Wide Web. Early uses of animated GIFs included the ever popular waving flag (see right) and the “Under Construction” banner. In the late 90s, the Dancing Baby meme solidified the GIF’s status as the go-to file format for gags that you just can’t help watching over and over. Now, the emergence of cinemagraphs, in which all but one element is still, has elevated the animated GIF to art. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting Moving the Still: A GIF Festival until the end of June. (Also, check out this neat animated history of GIFs created for the festival.)
According tothis site dedicated to proselytizing the soft G pronunciation, the debate was already broiling by 1998, when the owner first created the site. Naturally, as GIFs have gained even greater popularity, more people have bumped heads over the pronunciation of “GIF.” Both sides are equally adamant that their preferred pronunciation should be universally adopted. Even the White House tumblr weighed in, announcing its blog would contain GIFs with a hard G.
The debate boils down to whether the correct pronunciation should be determined by creators’ intention or spelling. According to the soft G camp, we should stick to the pronunciation the creators chose when they claimed that “choosy programmers choose GIF.” This argument makes sense, but ignores that pronunciations change over time. If the “correct” pronunciation is always the original, we should still pronounce the “k” in “knee.”
On the other hand, the hard G camp insists the intuitive pronunciation follows the spelling. Most Gs preceding short i sounds are hard Gs, as in “gill.” While a hard G is more intuitive, English spelling is often counter-intuitive. One common witticism attributed to George Bernard Shaw says “ghoti” can be pronounced “fish” (using the “gh” in “laugh,” the “o” in “women,” and the “ti” in “-tion”). Additionally, others argue that the hard G in “Graphics” merits a hard G in the “GIF” acronym. However, most acronyms are pronounced regardless of what their component letters stand for. (Think of the pronunciation of “scuba” with regard to the vowels; neither the long “u” of “underwater” nor the long “a” of “apparatus” influences the pronunciation of the acronym.)
So, which is the correct pronunciation? Neither can be deemed “correct” because no word ever has a correct pronunciation, just a common pronunciation. The Oxford English Dictionary draws its pronunciations from “those in use among educated urban speakers of standard English.” All commonly used pronunciations are equally valid, and, as far the Oxford American Dictionary is concerned, both pronunciations are correct. Our language changes as fast as internet culture.