Is it pronounced GIF or JIF? And why do we care? – RN


Updated

August 10, 2018 12:15:08

In the 1980s, anyone using computers quickly encountered two significant problems with images: interoperability, and size.

Some image file formats were proprietary, and couldn’t be shared or stored across workstations.

The file formats that could needed to be compressed, to account for early modem speeds.

It was into this environment, in 1987, that an engineer by the name of Steve Wilhite created a new type of compression format: the Graphics Interchange Format — or, for short, GIF.

Wilhite could scarcely have known that the format was to experience a memetic resurgence decades later, much less that it would be turned into a verb.

One thing Wilhite was sure of, though, was how GIF was pronounced.

In the technical documentation for the image format, Wilhite unambiguously stated it was “pronounced JIF“.

It was exactly the kind of developer in-joke that led to Apple naming operating systems after Californian geography, or Microsoft hiring Brian Eno to make the Windows 95 startup noise.

Wilhite had pronounced his image file format in part after a US brand of peanut butter. Choosy developers, he said, choose JIF.

But just a few years later, in 1994, the author of an encyclopedia of image formats said “most people” seem to prefer saying a different way: GIF. What was going on?

Why we pronounce it two ways

GIF is far from the only computer term to have variant pronunciations.

This is part and parcel of the trade: many terms used in computing are niche, and predominantly occur in written rather than spoken contexts.

Pronouncing these out loud can naturally lead to arguments. Should the file name extension, .exe, be said as EK-see or as an initialism?

Should WYSIWYG — an abbreviation of What You See Is What You Get used to describe website editors — have a /z/ sound somewhere in it?

Compounding this problem, speakers of English are already likely to pronounce the first letter in GIF two different ways: as the “hard G” of gift, got, and gate, or the “soft G” of gin, gym, or gem.

Acronyms, being short, are less likely to have guide characters that help indicate how other letters should be pronounced — just as the e in guide elongates a preceding vowel, where supper‘s doubled consonant shortens one.

A difficult choice

GIF’s pronunciation offers an interesting case study when it comes to locating correctness.

As you might expect, dictionaries — including the Oxford English Dictionary — tend to list both pronunciation forms, for the not unstupid reason that both forms have been in use as long as the file format itself has.

Potential prescriptivists face a choice: where does that sit against the file format’s original documentation, which specifies a JIF pronunciation, or Steve Wilhite’s insistence that the OED is wrong?

And does Wilhite’s position invalidate that of the Obama administration, who inexplicably waded into the debate around the same year? (For the record, they chose GIF with a hard G.)

For those who treat language like maths and demand logic from it, the following “rule” could be derived for English spelling:

G before the letters E, I or Y is realised as /ʤ/, elsewhere it is /g/.

From such a rule, it would be reasonable to demand that the only correct pronunciation of GIF is with the so-called soft G, /ʤ/.

But such a rule isn’t total — it can’t account for anger, or borrowings from the Japanese (geisha) or French (margarine).

And besides — isn’t analogy a good enough formative process for approaching speaker elicitation?

Why should we pronounce GIF any differently to the start of a Germanic word like gift?

Against reductive correctness

The other day, an ABC newsreader asked on social media how the word turmeric should be pronounced. Was it TUR-muh-rik or CHYOOH-muh-rik?

Unfazed by their inability to consult any kind of dictionary, I offered that both had long been in use in Australian and British English.

To my shock, I was told that this information was no kind of help, that I must “pick a side”.

This fascination with the sole correct pronunciation, especially for common words, astounds me.

In Australia it seems to be a result of a certain type of didactic English instruction, and is mostly done in good humour.

At times, though — as the linguist Nick Enfield has argued elsewhere — its adherents seem not to realise such a mindset privileges certain regional dialects, while arbitrarily invalidating the speech of others.

The GIF debate, while quietened, is not going away any time soon.

According to Google Trends data, searches for “GIF pronunciation” have risen steadily for the past six years.

This implies the kind of speaker uncertainty that may not lend itself to a “bandwagon effect”, where one variant form quickly outpaces another.

Which is fine by me. An object lesson: one of the more popular GIFs of this century is an animated screengrab of an advertisement for Mexican food.

In it, a little girl, resolving a culinary debate with Solomonic wisdom, suggests: porque no los dos?

Indeed, my tiny food advert friend. Why can’t we have both?

Tiger Webb is the ABC’s language researcher.

Topics:

english,

information-and-communication,

internet-culture,

social-media,

australia

First posted

August 10, 2018 09:53:46



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