NOTE: I did not set out to dedicate an entire blog to the GIF pronunciation, but every article I read about it claimed the hard ‘g’ version the logical choice and could only explain the why behind the soft ‘g’ version with a blurb about Wilhite and a shrug. This article isn’t an attempt to sway the ghifers, but to offer those who jiff their due justification.
It was a typical Monday in the Jemully office. Copywriters were slinging slogans. Designers were croppin’ it like it’s hot. My boss and I had a discussion in which I needed to say GIF out loud. I stumbled. “Is it jiff or is it ghif?” I asked. There were opinions, but not exactly a consensus in the office. After reading up, I polled social media.
Is the correct GIF pronunciation with a hard ‘g’ like ghif or a soft ‘g’ like jif?
Officially, either way is correct. Unofficially, it is debated.
I’ll tell you that my inclination was to pronounce it like jif. I didn’t initially consider the words the acronym stood for and frankly, I felt a little silly when the connection was pointed out to me. However, I’m a language gal, and so I wondered if I had good reason for my inclination. As it turns out, there is slightly more in favor of the soft ‘g’ GIF pronunciation. It’s a close call, and had the word’s inception veered slightly, there would be no debate.
A Quick GIF History
In 1987, Steve Wilhite invented the GIF while working as a programmer for CompuServe. The GIF pronunciation debate has been around since then, with an unofficial majority preferring to pronounce it with a hard ‘g’. The logic behind this pronunciation comes from what GIF stands for: Graphics Interchange Format. Graphics is pronounced with a hard ‘g’, so many believe the acronym should follow suit.
In 2013, Steve Wilhite, won a Webby Award. Webby acceptance speeches are limited to 5 words to save time. In his acceptance speech he declared via his own invention–once and for all (so he thought)–the correct way to pronounce it: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’” Regardless of your opinion, you’ve got to hand it to Steve for a creative and witty “speech.” (Skip to :045 seconds for the speech.)
This announcement caused a surge in the GIF pronunciation debate. Those who pronounced it jif felt vindicated. Hard ‘g’ believers refused (and still do) to pronounce it with a soft ‘g’. And in 2016, the debate rages on. Rages, I tell you.
G is for Graphics, That’s (Not) Good Enough (for Me)
No one says, jraphics, right?
It’s a favorite joke for fans of the hard ‘g’ pronunciation, along with pronouncing any other word that should use a hard ‘g’ with a with a soft ‘g’. It’s funny and appears to make a point. However, when you examine the rules of ‘g’ pronunciation, you might be surprised with the outcome.
Do you know why no one says jraphics? Because the rule for pronouncing the ‘g’ in the word graphics dictates that it should be a hard ‘g’. So, let’s look at the rules governing which pronunciation of ‘g’ to use and when.
G Pronunciation Rules:
Daily Writing Tips aptly explains the following rules for how to pronounce the letter ‘g’:
If the g is followed by e, i, or y, the pronunciation is “soft g”:
g+i: magic, margin, origin, engine
g+e: page, generation, detergent, vengeance
g+y: astrology Egyptian gym
If the g is followed by any other letter (than e, i, y), the pronunciation is “hard g”:
(Source: The Two Sounds of G.)
So the rule for pronouncing GIF supports the use of the soft ‘g’ as in gin, engine, and giant because an ‘i’ follows the ‘g’.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course, like gift and give. Etymology informs pronunciation and creates such exceptions. So, what are the origins of GIF?
The origins of GIF come from the words it stands for: Graphics Interchange Format, which come from the inventor, Steve Wilhite, who aligned the pronunciation with the pronunciation rule.
GIF is an acronym in which the g stands for graphics. Shouldn’t that inform the pronunciation? In a word, no.
There is no rule to follow (or break) for pronouncing acronyms. I repeat: there is no rule that says the acronym GIF should be pronounced with a hard ‘g’ because graphics is pronounced with a hard ‘g’.
Sure, it makes a certain sense that it would, except that using a hard ‘g’ sound is counter-intuitive, linguistically speaking. Since the pronunciation of the word formed by the letters g-i-f would follow the rule above, it also makes a certain sense to use the soft ‘g’.
Consider that we don’t grab cash out of an Ah-T-M. Even though the acronym stands for Automated Teller Machine and automated is pronounced with the /ä/ sound, we pronounce ATM with a long a. And even though a great many acronyms are pronounced with the same beginning consonant sound as the first word within the acronym, ATM is neither the exception nor the rule. It is simply one example to show that this happens and is perfectly acceptable.
Since there is no acronym pronunciation rule to override (or even compete with) the pronunciation rule for using a soft ‘g’ when followed by an ‘i’, and since the originator of the word GIF did not declare it an exception, there isn’t any rule supporting the hard ‘g’ GIF pronunciation. Rather, all the rules point to pronouncing it jif.
My theory is that many people don’t understand why we pronounce words the way we do. Outside of an educational environment, pronunciation and language is dealt with intuitively. We learned the rules, incorporated them, and for the most part, cannot explain why we pronounce the same letter different ways. This is why people look at Wilhite’s choice for choosing a soft ‘g’ and scoff.
On many sites and blogs regarding the GIF pronunciation, people admit they don’t have any idea why he would choose the soft ‘g’ (usually declaring his choice illogical). But he was–whether consciously or intuitively–following the pronunciation rules of the language. See, his choice is arguably more logical than using a hard ‘g’.
Since the dictionary considers both GIF pronunciations valid, there isn’t really any point to the so-called GIF pronunciation feud, except in fun.
Even as a language gal, I don’t find any benefit in correcting someone else’s pronunciation, even with the atrocities mentioned in our article: 20 Cringeworthy Pronunciation Fails. (Unless you are my child, niece, or nephew. In those cases, correct you, I will.)
In the case of the GIF pronunciation, there is no correct correction, anyhow. So, tell me.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jemully Media. Also, at Jemully Media we are free to pronounce GIF with either ‘g’ sound in an environment free from (serious) ridicule. Jemully Media is a pronunciation bully-free zone.