A linguist's take on the Great GIF Controversy

The Conflict:

For years, the English-speaking internet has been divided. We cannot agree on how to pronounce gif, the acronym for graphics interchange format. Much as with the dress, each side thinks their own position is the only correct one, and that the other side is absolutely crazy. And much as with the dress, it's probably a little more complicated.

People write articles with titles like you are 100 percent wrong about how to pronounce gif. People share mocking gifs with arguments bolstering their point of view. People yell at one another. Things get entirely too heated.

I intend to shed some light on this situation.

The Options:

There are technically three ways you could pronounce gif in English, although the conflict is over the first two. The three are:

  1. so-called "hard g" which linguists represent with /g/. This is <g> as in "gift".
  2. so-called "soft g" which linguists represent with /d͡ʒ/. This is <g> as in "George." It is also sometimes represented with <j> as in "Jazz".
  3. The "French" or "super soft g", which linguists represent with /ʒ/. It is in (some) pronunciations of "rouge". (Note that some English speakers "nativize" words with this to have the /d/ sound in the "soft g", so what I call "baton rouge" they may call "baton roudge".

While I relish in ironically using the third option and watching people on both sides of the hard/soft g debate lose their minds, I recognize that nobody is going to take seriously the argument that "French g" is correct.

The Arguments:

Arguments for "hard g":

  1. It's an acronym, and the word the <g> comes from is one where it is pronounced "hard" (namely, "graphical").
  2. We often pronounce acronyms differently than we would pronounce a word spelled the same way (CIA is "see eye aye" and not "kia").
  3. Feelings. People have really strong feelings that this is the only correct way.

Arguments for "soft g":

  1.  Lots of words spelled with <gi> are pronounced with a "soft g": ginger, gin, giraffe, giant...
  2. It's easier to pronounce gif as a word and not as an acronym. Nobody is actually saying "gee eye eff". If you're going to make it a word, then make it a word!
  3. "Foreign" words often have a "soft g" (giraffe...).
  4. Feelings. People have really strong feelings this is the only correct way.

A dash of science:

I decided to take a look at this list of over 58,000 (relatively common) English words, and see what the patterns are for g-words.

There are 1836 words that start with <g> in this list, and there's not a clear rhyme or reason to the choice of "hard" versus "soft" g, so one would have to look at each of them to get a sense of the overall pattern. That's a pain in the ass. However, there is a helpful fun fact from linguistics that can constrain this problem a bit more:

"soft g" often comes from a combination of sounds, historically: a "hard g" followed by a non-low front vowel. What does that mean? That means that for the vowels /i/ "bead", /e/ "bade", /ɪ/ "bid", and /ɛ/ "bed", your tongue is actually higher in your mouth, and closer to the front of the mouth than it is for the vowels /u/ "booed", /o/ "bode", etc. The "hard g" sound is made by the back of the tongue forming a closure at the back of your mouth. These high front vowels tend to cause people to move their tongues slightly forward, and over time (we're talking hundreds of years) the sound changes to one made intentionally further forward. "Soft g" is created by a tongue closure further forward in your mouth than "hard g". Try saying words with them and pay attention to where your tongue is. (Try it! It's fun!)

This fact is part of why Italian spelling is so weird, for anyone who's tried to learn Italian.

All of that means I don't need to bother with words like "goof" because nobody is going to pronounce that with a "soft g."

So I chose to limit myself to words that start with <gi>. It turns out there are 102 of them, which meant I could simply read them and split them into "hard" and "soft". Of those, 30 are "soft" and almost all of this are of foreign origin.

30/102 (29.4%) of words that start with <gi> have a "soft g."

It's not entirely unreasonable then to thing that gif should perhaps be pronounced with a "soft g." People will argue There are more with a hard g, and that's true, but the same people will say that "soft g" is crazy, which is clearly not true.

BUT WAIT. What about words with <ge> you ask? I'm glad you asked. There were 223 of those. Of them, 197 were pronounced with a "soft g" (e.g., gene, gender, geriatric, geology, gelatinous...).

So...

197/223 (88.3%) of words that start with <ge> have a "soft g."

This means that:

Of all of the words with <g> where it could be pronounced hard or soft, 227/325 (69.8%) are pronounced with a "soft g".

It's also worth noting that in the particular list I have, fully 38% of the words are <g> either <i> or <e> and then <n>. This is important, because many people have what is referred to as the PIN-PEN merger, meaning that <i> and <e> before <n> are pronounced the same. That means Jim and gem are both pronounced the same (namely, as Jim). This is a feature of Southern American English, pretty much the entirety of the West, most of Canadian English, and most of African American English. A LOT of people do this.

This means that even if they're limiting themselves to only words that are pronounced <gi>, there are 109 more words in this list that they believe are pronounced with the "ih" vowel than if they don't have the PIN-PEN merger.

So...

For people with the PIN-PEN merger, 139/211 (65.8%) of <gi> words are pronounced with a "soft g."

The Takeaway:

Even if people are being completely rational about their decision about how to pronounce gif, it's informed by their dialect, and their personal pronunciations of other words. While it is rational to say "it's from graphics which has a 'hard g'" Nobody is saying "gee eye eff" (which coincidentally, has a "soft g"). While it's rational to say that foreign words are often nativized with a "soft g" (like giraffe), nobody says "gift" with a "soft g".

Finally, even if people are thinking statistically about it (even if it's sort of "fuzzy" math based on what they have heard in their life and not hard numbers), The conclusions they come to are dependent on their dialect, speech community, and vocabulary.

This is why I ironically go with the "French g": if you have strong feelings about the pronunciation of gif, no matter what they are, you're probably wrong. And if you're having the argument, it's because someone tried to share an image with you. Why not just be nice, instead of pedantically (and no matter what side you choose, wrongly) lecturing your acquaintances on how to say words?

 

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©Taylor Jones 2017

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