Words Change

This morning I watched an episode of Idea Channel about the pronunciation of GIF. He contends that it’s okay to say it in any format you wish to say it. I had to agree with him, for many of the reasons he spoke of, and a few others.

My views on language have been influenced by the fact that I have lived in four states, traveled about the rest of the country, and I’m an avid reader and writer. If you travel from one section of the USA to another you will find different dialects, slang, accents and pronunciations of words you find quite common. Because I moved a lot I picked up these odd pronunciations, and they moved with me. I also learned to say a lot of words by reading them, rather than hearing them, so I still pronounce many words phonetically rather than in the common vernacular.

Our language has changed greatly over the last few centuries, and it will continue to morph (though I wonder if the effects of recorded medium have slowed this shift down.) It is further complicated by the fact that we now have a great many common words that originated as text only, like Targaryen, Nazgul, gif, or any number of names and places made up by various authors or programmers. We have another form of language, a language that does not have a proper sound.

Of course, we can ask George R. R. Martin how he intended to say Targaryen, and we can even look back at J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes and find pronunciation guides to his words. There are entire dictionaries dedicated to Elvish, Dothraki, and Klingon. But what about other authors that have long since passed on? We can only try to extrapolate from what we know of reading, and we, the common reader, won’t even be able to translate older works into the original sounds because of the shift in language over the years. Just look at the original Shakespeare; it doesn’t rhyme in modern tongue half as much as it did in the original.

But from the other viewpoint, language has become a bastion of purity for some people. Grammar nazi’s and armchair editors that will come after you if you write a book and forget to put the comma in the wrong place, or use “drug” instead of “dragged” even though in many dialects the correct word IS drug. This shift in language, these dialects, are slowly making their way into the written form, and many people are loath to let them. That’s why we had gate keepers (publishers) and editors. They kept the Chicago Manual of Style on their desk and if you deviated they quickly shut it down and conformed your text to the standard English. But now we have self published works in every medium, and that means the wider adoption of different languages and dialects. That means someone from one culture is more likely find a book written with their dialect, enforcing the differences in language, and making subtle dialect shifts more wide spread.

And yet, armchair editors will still shout a person down, telling them how wrong they are even when it is a matter of dialect, just as happens in the combat between “jif” and “gif”.

English is not so cut and dry as many think. Language is influenced by current events, geography, culture, and adaptability. It shifts, changes, and morphs over the centuries. Words take on new meanings. New words come into play. And old words are pronounced differently.

And that’s okay.