Why the Pronunciation of GIF Really Can Go Either Way


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.

Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?

What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images
This Just In
For $61, You Can Become a Co-Owner of This 13th-Century French Castle
Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images

A cultural heritage restoration site recently invited people to buy a French castle for as little as $61. The only catch? You'll be co-owning it with thousands of other donors. Now thousands of shareholders are responsible for the fate of the Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers in western France, and there's still room for more people to participate.

According to Mashable, the dilapidated structure has a rich history. Since its construction in the 13th century, the castle has been invaded by foreign forces, looted, renovated, and devastated by a fire. Friends of Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers, a small foundation formed in 2016 in an effort to conserve the overgrown property, want to see the castle restored to its former glory.

Thanks to a crowdfunding collaboration with the cultural heritage restoration platform Dartagnans, the group is closer than ever to realizing its mission. More than 9000 web users have contributed €51 ($61) or more to the campaign to “adopt” Mothe-Chandeniers. Now that the original €500,000 goal has been fulfilled, the property’s new owners are responsible for deciding what to do with their purchase.

“We intend to create a dedicated platform that will allow each owner to monitor the progress of works, events, project proposals and build a real collaborative and participatory project,” the campaign page reads. “To make an abandoned ruin a collective work is the best way to protect it over time.”

Even though the initial goal has been met, Dartagnans will continue accepting funds for the project through December 25. Money collected between now and then will be used to pay for various fees related to the purchase of the site, and new donors will be added to the growing list of owners.

The shareholders will be among the first to see the cleared-out site during an initial visit next spring. The rest of the public will have to wait until it’s fully restored to see the final product.

[h/t Mashable]


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