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Why Are There Two Pronunciations for 'G'?

@TimeOutNewYork
@TimeOutNewYork

At the Webby Awards in 2013, Steve Wilhite, creator of the Graphics Interchange Format, asserted his authority in the controversial matter of the proper pronunciation of GIF. His five word acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award was unambiguous and forceful : "It's pronounced 'JIF,' not 'GIF.'" Proponents of the soft-g cheered, while those in the hard-g camp rejected Wilhite's authority, saying that they will continue to damn well say it as they please.

On phonetic grounds, a case can be made for either pronunciation. In English, words beginning with 'g' can have a soft (giraffe) or hard (give) pronunciation, and therein lies the problem. Why are there two g's? And are there any rules governing which one is correct?

We should be glad there are only two alternatives. When the 'g' was first used to write Old English, it stood for four different sounds: a hard g, a soft g, a 'y' sound as in "yes," and a sort of soft gargle we no longer use in English (a voiced velar fricative).

During the Middle English period, we borrowed a lot from French, which used 'g' for a hard g before back vowels (a, o, u) and a soft g before front vowels (i, e). We started to use 'g' in the French way, while another letter (the insular g) took over spelling for the other sounds, before they disappeared or turned into other things.

So we have two g's because French had two g's. Are the rules governing which pronunciation to use the same as the French ones? Not quite. Much of English vocabulary comes from French, but not all of it, and that's where it gets complicated for 'g.' But there are some rules to go by:

1. Hard g before a consonant (glad, great)

2. Hard g before a back vowel (go, garden, gum)

3. Hard g at the end of a word (big, frog, leg)

4. Hard g if it's a Hebrew name (Gideon, Giliad)

5. Hard g before a front vowel in most words of Germanic origin (gift, get, gild)

6. Soft g for a word of Greek origin that starts with gy- (gymnasium, gymnastics, gyroscope). However! There is an exception to this rule for 'gynecology' and other 'gyn-' words.

7. Soft g before a front vowel if the word has a Romance origin (geography, giant, ginger, general)

So where does GIF fit in?

As a word with a g before a front vowel, there are four possible rules (4-7 above) that could apply: hard g if the word origin is Hebrew or Germanic, soft g if it's Greek or Romance. But, alas, GIF is rootless! An etymological golem built from spare parts! And so we are left in a lawless tundra, with no code to live by.

And this is when we start to attack each other.

Some look to the soft g Romans for guidance and some to the hard g Visigoths. Others may side with the hard g Maccabee army or the soft g Greek army. Whoever conquers the land of GIF will be rewarded with plentiful natural reserves of kittens and celebrities. Unfortunately, the prospects don't look good for peace.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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