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Why the Pronunciation of GIF Really Can Go Either Way

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How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Do you pronounce gif with a hard g as in get or with a soft g as in gem? It's a question that people won't stop arguing about on the internet.

But why are we so confused? Why is each camp so passionate about being right? And is there in fact a right way to pronounce gif?

Sure, the creator of the gif, Steve Wilhite, prefers a soft g, and sure, gif originated as an acronym for graphics interchange format, but inventors aren't always good at naming (the zipper was originally called the "clasp locker"), and acronyms aren't always pronounced like their roots (the "a" in NATO isn't the same as the "a" in Atlantic). In truth, language is far more democratic.

So Michael Dow, a linguistics professor at Université de Montréal, decided to investigate a different way, and I talked with him about his findings. The idea is, people decide how to pronounce a new word based on its resemblance to words they're already familiar with. So we can all agree on how to pronounce snapchat because it's made up of familiar words snap and chat, and we don't have any problems with blog because it rhymes with frog, log, slog, and so on, but we have no idea how to pronounce doge because there aren't any other common English words that end in -oge.

The problem with gif isn't the back half—we already know how to pronounce if. The problem is the front half: Does the i make the g soft or not? It's clearly not an absolute yes or no—there are English words in both categories: gift has a hard g before i, whereas gin has a soft g before i. What matters is the frequency. So Dow looked at a large corpus of 40,000 unique words with their frequency and pronunciation taken from The English Lexicon Project. Of these words, how many were like gift (hard g) and how many were like gin (soft g)?

Dow found 105 words in the corpus that had "gi" somewhere in their spelling, not counting variations on the same word, like gift/gifts or geography/geographical. At first glance, it looks like the gin group wins—there were 68 "gi" words that were pronounced with a soft g as in gin, but only half as many (37) that were pronounced with a hard g as in gift

Case closed? Not so fast. Although there are more soft g words, they don't get used as often. The least common word in the entire list was "tergiversate," which I had to look up—it apparently means "make conflicting or evasive statements; equivocate," and it's pronounced with a soft g. Rounding out the bottom eight are some more soft "gi" words you probably don't use every day: "gimcrack," "excogitate," "elegiac," "flibbertigibbet," "corrigible," "gibbet," and "giblet." Hard "gi" words don't show up until the ninth and tenth least common: "muggins" and "girt."

By contrast, the most-used words tend to be pronounced with hard g: Dow found that hard "gi" words were used overall around 10 thousand times in the corpus, whereas soft "gi" words were only used 4 thousand times. And our most-frequent list starts with four hard g words: "give" (#1), "begin" (#2), "girl" (#4) compared to "magic" (#3) and "engine" (#5). And "give" in particular is extraordinarily common—it's used almost four times as much as the next most common word, "begin." 

So in order to know what expectations we're approaching an unfamiliar "gi" word with, we need to balance the fact that there are twice as many soft g words but we use the hard g words twice as often—and it turns out, when Dow did a calculation known as the log frequency that does exactly this, the hard g words and the soft g words end up almost exactly the same.

And it doesn't matter what else we take into consideration. Want to compare only words that begin with "gi," to avoid the potential confounds of "magic" or "begin"? Again, when we take all factors into consideration, Dow found that they were the same.

Want to compare only monosyllables, and avoid "giant" or "forgive"? Yep, still the same.

In other words, when you see a new word starting with "gi," your previous exposure to "gi" words is basically telling you to flip a coin—it's just as likely that you'll decide to pronounce it with a hard g as with a soft g. And you'll never find an overwhelming enough piece of counter-evidence to get you to change your mind. Which probably means we'll be fighting the gif pronunciation war for generations to come.

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Don’t Fall For This Trick Used by Hotel Booking Sites
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Hotel booking sites can be useful tools when comparing prices, locations, and amenities, but some services use deceptive tactics to get you to click “book.”

A new report spotted by Travel + Leisure determined that those “one room left” alerts you sometimes see while perusing hotels can’t always be trusted. Led by the UK-based Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the eight-month investigation concluded that many sites use “pressure selling” to create a false sense of urgency in hopes that customers will book a room more quickly than usual. Similar notices about how many people are looking at a particular room or how long a deal will last are some of the other tactics travel booking websites employed.

The CMA also found that some discount claims had either expired or weren’t relevant to the customer’s search criteria, and hidden fees—like the much-maligned "resort fees"—are sometimes tacked on at the end of the booking process. (To be fair, many hotels are also guilty of this practice.)

The report didn’t drop any company names, but the consumer agency said it warned the sites that legal action would be taken if their concerns weren't addressed. The companies could be breaking consumer protection law, the CMA notes.

“Booking sites can make it so much easier to choose your holiday, but only if people are able to trust them,” Andrea Coscelli, the CMA's chief executive, said in a statement. “Holidaymakers must feel sure they’re getting the deal they expected … It’s also important that no one feels pressured by misleading statements into making a booking.”

Still, booking sites remain a convenient option, so if you decide to use one, just take your time and be cognizant that some of the claims you're seeing may not be entirely truthful.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

The Internet Archive's Billions of Web Pages Inspired a New Art Exhibition

The Internet Archive, a digital library based out of San Francisco, contains books, movies, music, and roughly 332 billion web pages saved from internet history. The nonprofit's collection is an invaluable tool for researchers, but for the past two years, it has also provided some inspiration to artists. As Fast Company reports, the Internet Archive’s 2018 artist in residence exhibition opens in San Francisco on Saturday, July 14.

For its second annual visual arts residency, the Internet Archive invited artists Chris Sollars, Taravat Talepasand, and Mieke Marple to refer to its web archive (a.k.a. the Wayback Machine) as well as its media archive while building a body of work over the course of a year.

Marple, an artist from Palo Alto, California, created a series of illustrations based on a Facebook quiz titled “What Abomination from the Garden of Earthly Delights Are You?” She found images that inspired the project's visual style from books in the archive's library.

San Francisco artist Chris Sollars built a multimedia exhibition meant to evoke the Bay Area in the 1960s. It includes retro screen savers, literature on psychedelic drugs, and live recordings of the Grateful Dead.

The third artist, Taravat Talepasand, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, was born in the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution. She used the archive to build a mini archive containing magazines, propaganda, and posters from pre-revolutionary Iran. From that, she drew inspiration to make an accompanying series of paintings and drawings.

After launching July 14, the exhibition will be available to view at 1275 Minnesota Street, Suite 105, in San Francisco through August 11. If you're looking for inspiration of your own, artists and non-artists alike can search the Internet Archive for rare materials anytime for free.

[h/t Fast Company]

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