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Why Are There Two Pronunciations for 'G'?

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@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's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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iStock

While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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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Big Questions
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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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