Sunday, April 2, 2017

(Probably Not) The Final Word on the Pronunciation of "GIF"

The pronunciation of the popular image file, "GIF," (an acronym standing for "Graphics Interchange Format") has been a subject of intense debate over the last few years. There are those who argue that the "G" is soft, choosing to pronounce it like the ubiquitous mass-marketed, over-sugared peanut butter, and others who maintain that it should be pronounced with a hard "G," like "gift" minus the "t". And then there are others who wonder what the hell these geeks are arguing about.

Well, I happened to be one of those geeks and I will say that arguing about minutia is a proud past time of geeks everywhere, and we are not ashamed of this. In addition, I will propose that accuracy and correctness are still important, in spite of what an increasing number of people seem to believe these days.

Some have tried to say that both pronunciations are acceptable.  I disagree. GIF is a recent entry to the lexicon, so it has not been subject to the same linguistic evolution that older words were, with their pronunciations changing over time and being twisted with regional accents. The word "aluminum" may sound completely different on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, but there should be agreement on GIF.

So how do we decide who's right? For me, it's simple. Go to the source. Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF declared in a comment to the New York Times in 2013: “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations... They are wrong. It is a soft 'G,' pronounced 'jif.' End of story."

That should be the end of the story, right? Yet, people come out of the woodwork to contradict the man on how to say the name of his own invention. Really? Would you go up to a mother and tell her that she is mispronouncing the name of her child?

Personally, I always said it as "jif." I don't remember anyone telling me that was how is was said. That is simply how it sounded in my head when I read it off the screen (if it was "Graphics Interchange Format File" or "GIFF," I would definitely pronounce it with a hard "G.") But I must be a weirdo because culture writer Joanna Brenner declared in a Newsweek article last year, that "our brains logically just want to pronounce it with a hard G."

So I guess I do not have a logical brain, at least as far as Brenner would define it.  And, evidently, that is the case for many others as well. The fact that this argument rages on is a testament to that fact.

To be fair, Brenner does make a compelling point in her article when she asserts that "every word that starts with G, then a vowel, then an F, is pronounced with a hard G... For example: Gaffe. Gift. Guff. Guffaw."

I am tentatively willing to concede that point, even though I cannot attest to the veracity of this claim. I do not have a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to pore through to find a counter-example. All I can respond with is that English is a highly irregular and elastic language, that there is a first time for everything, and that this linguistic observation is not enough to dissuade me from my immediate impulse.

The biggest argument that I hear all the time, though, is that the "G" stands for "Graphic," and thus should be pronounced with a hard "G." Mic drop.

I will admit it. That one had me stumped for a while, but the other day I realized something. Yes, GIF is an acronym, and acronyms can get tricky. Even looking at acronyms of other file formats, we can see how the rules of pronunciation can be fluid. JPEG (short for "Joint Photographic Experts Group") is pronounced "JAY-Peg," and not "juh-PEG." To be fair, two consonants together can make things difficult, and JPEG is really a compound of an initialism (like "BBC") and an acronym. The pronunciation is merely something that is easy to say and easy on the ear.

GIF (consonant-vowel-consonant) is relatively straightforward, though, and follows the definition from Merriam-Webster, being " a word (such as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term."

Examining the examples provided in that definition, one would immediately find that the pronunciation of acronyms are unrelated to the sounds that the letters made in the original words. For example, though the "A" in NATO represents the word "Atlantic" (as in "North Atlantic Treaty Organization"), it is not pronounced as such. The "A" in "Atlantic" is pronounced as an open front unrounded vowel, the same sound as in "at" or "apple." However, the acronym, NATO, is pronounced "NAY-to." The letter "A" sounds quite differently in the acronym from the way it sounds in the original word.

While we're at it, let's look briefly at the other two examples in the Merriam-Webster definition. We pronounce "Radar" (RAdio Detection And Ranging)  as "REY-dahr," but if one would pronounce the word with the second a representing the word "and," it would sound more like "rey-DARE." Breaking down "Laser," normally pronounced "LEY-zer," given that the "E" represents the word "emission," it would be pronounced  "lahy-ZEER. "

So even though these are vowel sounds and not consonants that are being twisted around, I still will put forth that within this specific published definition of the word, acronym, there is evidence that the pronunciation is independent of the original words.

You may say that I have not proven myself completely right, and I will respond by saying that I don't have to. In this case, all I have to do is prove that I'm not wrong. And I think that even if I may not have completely discredited them, I have at least challenged most of the arguments that say that "jif" is not a viable pronunciation. Given that, I think maybe it's time to drop the arrogance and defer to the designer.

Get my gist?

(Now for those who would dismiss my analysis by scoffing and saying that I have too much time on my hands, I am issuing a preliminary middle finger.)

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