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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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Computer Users, Rejoice: You're Finally Allowed to Create Easy-to-Remember Passwords
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To keep your personal data secure, it’s important to craft a strong password—and for nearly 15 years, savvy computer users have heeded the counsel of Bill Burr, the man who quite literally wrote the book on password management. Now, The Wall Street Journal reports that Burr has admitted that some of his advice was flawed. While working as a manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2003, Burr wrote a primer—officially known as “NIST Special Publication 800-63. Appendix A”—that instructed federal workers to create codes using obscure characters, a mix of lowercase and capital letters, and numbers. For security purposes, he also recommended changing passwords on a regular basis. At the time, however, Burr didn’t have a ton of data to rely on, so he ended up using a paper published in the mid-1980s as a primary source for the manual. Burr’s primer eventually became widely used among federal workers, corporate companies, websites, and tech companies alike. But in hindsight, experts say that Burr’s directives didn’t actually improve cybersecurity: The NIST recently gave his primer received a full overhaul, and they opted to eliminate the now-famous rules about using special characters and switching up codes. These rules “actually had a negative impact on usability,” Paul Grassi, the NIST standards-and-technology adviser who led Special Publication 800-63’s rewrite, told The Wall Street Journal. They make it harder to remember and type in codes, plus those parties who did change their passwords every 90 days typically only made minor, easy-to-guess alterations. Plus, research now shows that longer passwords—a series of around four words—are ultimately harder to crack than shorter combinations of letters, characters, or numbers. (And at the end of the day, computer users ended up paradoxically choosing the same “random” passwords used by millions of others.) The NIST now recommends long, easy-to-remember passwords (not the “#!%”-filled ones of yesteryear) and for people to switch codes only if they suspect that their existing one has been stolen. In short, it's probably time to change your password—and this time around, you might even have an easier time remembering it.
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technology
Hacked Rotary Phone Demonstrates How the Internet Works
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Untangling the inner workings of the internet gets complicated fast, partly because the World Wide Web isn’t a single entity. Rather, it’s a vast network of networks in communication with one another. To demonstrate this complex process at work, a group of students from Copenhagen reduced it to something most people are familiar with: a rotary telephone.

As Co.Design reports, the Internet Phone looks like an old-fashioned telephone with a rotary dial, but students at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design have modified it to function like a web browser. To use it, callers dial the IP address of whichever website they wish to visit. When the call is answered, a voice reads the text aloud as it would appear on the webpage.

If a caller wants to hear the raw HTML, they can switch the phone to “developer” mode. There’s also an “article” option for skipping irrelevant content and a “history” mode for redialing the last five IP addresses that were called.

It may be hard to connect the act of calling a website on a rotary phone to opening a site on your smartphone, but the two aren’t that far apart. The students write in the project description:

“Each step in the user experience is comparable to the process that a browser takes when retrieving a website. Looking up the IP addresses in a phone book is similar to how a browser gets an IP address from DNS (Domain Name System) directories. Dialing the twelve digits and waiting for the phone to retrieve the HTML content mimic how a browser requests data from servers. The voice-to-speech reading of the website is comparable to how a browser translates HTML and CSS code into human understandable content.”

After watching the reinvented phone in action, check out these other practical uses for retro technology.

[h/t Co.Design]

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