An Animated Debate

If you want to start a spirited debate among a group of technology-savvy young males, wait for one of them to mention the graphics file format known as the “GIF.” They’ll pronounce it with either a soft G, like “giraffe,” or a hard G, like “gift.” Whichever pronunciation they use, correct them by insisting the other one is proper.

Trust me. It’ll be hilarious.

Disagreement over the pronunciation of this specific acronym is one of the great unsolvables in human experience. Long after we have achieved world peace, and after Yankee and Red Sox fans can intermarry without shaming their families, the GIF vs GIF divide will still be starting fistfights. It’s so intractable that the Oxford English Dictionary, the final authority on what is or isn’t proper English, has thrown up its hands and said, “Fuck it. Pronounce the goddamn thing however you like. Leave us out of this!”

The problem comes down to the fact that GIF lies at the crossroads between two completely contradictory rules of English pronunciation. I know, contradictory rules in the English language? Impossible, right? Though it will be tough, I will lead you through a thorough examination of this situation.

First, some background for those who, until now, have been blissfully ignorant of this yawning cultural chasm. GIF is a computer file format for images, dating back to before the dawn of time, or at least to before the internet. The letters stand for “Graphics Interchange Format.” The format itself is primitive compared to more modern image formats, unable to display more than 256 colors at once. Its party piece, the only reason it survives into the present, is its ability to display multiple images in sequences, which is a fancy way of saying animation. If you’ve seen an animated image on Facebook or Twitter, it’s a GIF.

The format was invented in 1987 by a programmer named Steve Wilhite, who comes down firmly on the soft-g “giraffe” side of the argument, pronouncing it like the peanut butter. Some think that the fact that the inventor pronounces it this way settles the argument. But Wilhite is a computer programmer, not a linguist, and he doesn’t get to rewrite the rules of English pronunciation.

The difficulty lies in the gap between the way we pronounce words beginning with the letter “g” and the way we pronounce acronyms.

Oh, and by the way, “GIF” is an acronym. “FBI” is not. That’s an initialism. Acronyms are pronounced like words while we spell out the letters in an initialism. Got it? Good. Moving on.

Usually, words that start with a “g” followed by either an “e” or an “i,” words like “general” and “giraffe,” are pronounced with a soft g sound. Where an “a,” “o,” or “u” follow the “g,” we use a hard g, as in “garage,” “gore,” or “gun.” This is why the soft-g side of the room thinks they’re in the right, but the English language then comes around to bite the soft g, pronounce-it-like-the-peanut-butter crowd on the ass. English also has words like “gear” and “gift” where “e” or “i” follow a hard g. The mere fact that the closest English word to the acronym, “gift,” breaks the rule with a hard g undercuts the dogmatic stance of the soft g believers.

Acronyms, on the other hand, are supposed to base their pronunciation on the way the letters are pronounced in the original words. In other words, because the “g” in GIF stands for “graphics,” it should be a hard g. There you go, case closed, argument solved.

But no, sorry. It’s not that simple on this side of the ledger either, because of our cultural habits as English speakers.

The letter “c” is similar to “g” in the sense that, where it’s followed by “e” or “i,” we use soft c or “s” sound, otherwise we use the hard c or “k” sound. Of course, there are exceptions to this as well. “Celtic,” for example, is pronounced with a hard c, unless you play professional basketball. Apparently.

But let’s say you had an organization called the “Center for Amazing Tattoos,” with the acronym of C.A.T. According to the rules for acronyms, because the first word, “center” has a soft c, we should pronounce it “sat,” right?

Don’t be an idiot. We’d pronounce it like:

So, if someone asks if they should pronounce GIF with a soft g or a hard g, the correct answer is yes, they should pronounce it with either a soft g or a hard g and then just get on with their lives, for fuck’s sake.

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