Featured Stories

A Linguist’s Guide to Pronouncing ‘GIF’

Five years after the creator of the .gif format declared there was one “right way” to pronounce it, the linguistic debate rages on

Donnie Schultz
Dec 10, 2018 · 6 min read
Credit: Blankstock/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Ever since that fateful evening in 2013, when Steve Wilhite — inventor of the .gif format — declared that his format was pronounced “jif,” not “gif,” nerds across the globe have been at war. Today, people from all walks of life defend their use of the “hard G” or “soft G” with a zeal not seen since the Knights Templar first donned their bucket helms and set off for Constantinople. Tears have been shed, blood has been spilled, grammarian prescriptivists and neutral linguists have nitpicked the whole thing to death, and still we are no closer to a resolution on how the damn thing is pronounced. The truth of the matter is, as is true with any word, there is no right way.

There is, however, a best way.

In addition to being a hard-core science fiction fan, reader, writer, and reviewer, I am also a linguist. I studied linguistics at UC Berkeley, where I learned things I honestly never wanted to know about human language and how humans use it. I am also a meme enthusiast. I scroll through the fresh section of 9Gag every morning, keeping up on the latest in meme fashions. I spend more time on knowyourmeme.com than I probably should. As such, I consider myself an expert on the GIF. It is for this reason that I make a brief departure from the world of science fiction to analyze this Supremely Important Question (SIQ):

Is it /gɪf/ or /d͡ʒɪf/?

For those of you who weren’t fortunate enough to endure the torture that is learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), all those funny characters represent sounds in human language. Each character only represents one sound. There’s no confusion about how they’re pronounced, as opposed to the characters used to write most languages — like the English “g.”

Linguists use the IPA to represent pronunciations in an unambiguous way so that we can talk about sounds in language independently from orthography (the fancy linguistics word for “spelling”). For the purposes of this article, there are only two IPA characters you need to know:

  • [g]: This is the “hard G” as in “golf,” “girl,” “gift,” and damn near every other English word that starts with “g.” It’s no coincidence that the IPA character is actually the Latin “g,” since this character, in almost every other language, represents a “hard G.” (Boy, isn’t that convenient.)
  • [d͡ʒ]: This is the “soft G” as in “Germany,” “giraffe,” and “gin.” In the interest of fairness, I will point out that many words in English that begin with “g” are pronounced with [d͡ʒ]. Most of these, however, are either recent loan words or have some other really good phonological reason why they’re pronounced that way. (Hint: “GIF” is not a loan word and does not have a good phonological reason for being pronounced with [d͡ʒ]). This IPA character is a compound of the sound [d] as in “dog” and [ʒ] as in the middle of the word “measure.”

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get back to our SIQ — our Supremely Important Question.

As you may have guessed, I, personally, pronounce “GIF” as /gɪf/, and I believe that this is, in fact, the aforementioned best way. I believe this for two main reasons.

1. Linguistic Descriptivism

In linguistics, we have two contrasting concepts: prescriptivism and descriptivism.

Linguistic prescriptivism is a concept used to describe what happens when a group — usually a government-sponsored institution or power group — attempts to determine, and sometimes enforce, what is correct and incorrect in any language. Popular examples of this concept are the existence of L’Académie Française, the regulatory body of the French language, and the common English saying that “‘Ain’t’ ain’t a word.” While one is an institution, and one is a class-based social enforcement, both seek to determine what is “proper” in their respective languages. There are massive problems with the enforcement of “proper” language, which can delegitimize expression of minority groups and, in turn, disenfranchise entire contingencies of people in a given society. This is seen by many in the linguistic community to be no bueno.

That’s where descriptivism comes in. Linguistic descriptivism is a concept that anything spoken by a native speaker and accepted as intelligible by any other native speaker is valid. For example, since English speakers both say and understand the word “ain’t” (which, by the way, is actually a historically and contemporarily attested contraction of “am not” which was later shunned due to its heavy use by African slave populations), it is a valid word. It is part of the language, whether we like it or not. Linguistic descriptivism also holds that no group or institution can legitimately influence or police what is considered right or wrong in a language.

Linguistic descriptivism is a concept that anything spoken by a native speaker and accepted as intelligible by any other native speaker is valid.

From a descriptivist point of view, if we really need to know how to pronounce “GIF,” we can turn to the polls to figure it out. Luckily, when it comes to the case of “GIF,” the results are in: In 2014, Mashable, in conjunction with Column Five, published the results of a survey on the pronunciation of tech words which found that 70% of those people surveyed worldwide pronounced “GIF” as /gɪf/.

I, as a descriptivist, will not say that there is a right or wrong way to pronounce “GIF.” I must therefore respect the linguistic rights of those who pronounce it (blasphemously) as /d͡ʒɪf/. However, I have the populace on my side when I say that /gɪf/ is not the right way, but the best way.

2. Acronyms

An acronym is a word normally composed of the first letters of the words in a name, title, phrase, or some other multi-word collection — like, for example, NASA.

Typically, unless it is prohibited by the constraints of the language or the combination of sounds is simply too unnatural for the mouth to make, an acronym is pronounced using the pronunciations of the letters in the words that make it up. For instance, in the case of “MAGA,” this is pronounced /maga/ and not /mad͡ʒa/, as the acronym stands for “Make America Great Again.” “Great” is pronounced /gɹe͡ɪʔ/, not /d͡ʒɹe͡ɪʔ/, and so the acronym follows suit.

Similarly, GIF stands for “Graphics Interchange Format,” where “graphics” is pronounced /gɹæfɪk͡s/, not /d͡ʒɹæfɪk͡s/. As such, the closest pronunciation to its intended meaning is /gɪf/. Why would you want to complicate things? This is obviously the best way.

Intellectual Property

The question always comes up as to the rights of Steve Wilhite to name his creation. As the creator of the .gif format, doesn’t he deserve to tell us how the acronym for his format is to be pronounced? Isn’t it disrespectful to say it’s pronounced another way, when he just really, really wants you to say /d͡ʒɪf/?

My answer is a resounding no. Awarding that privilege to Steve Wilhite is to open the door to linguistic tyranny and prescriptivism everywhere. Another example from the world of tech can help support my point. The creator of LaTeX, the document preparation system, explicitly says that his system is pronounced “Lah-tech” or “Lay-tech” (to rhyme with “blech” or “Bertolt Brecht”). Yet so many people who use it — especially the English speakers who cannot make the [χ] or the [ç] sounds — still pronounce “LaTeX” as /le͡ɪtɛk͡s/, and not /laːtɛχ/ or /laːtɛç/. Does Leslie Lamport have the right to force English speakers to produce these difficult (yet strikingly beautiful) German guttural sounds? No! If Wilhite and Lamport can force us to pronounce things a certain way, the Grammar Nazis win.

The Best Way

In light of the overwhelming evidence, it’s safe to say that we finally have an answer to our SIQ: /gɪf/ is, beyond doubt, the best way to pronounce “GIF.” The following summary explains the key premises of the argument:

  1. Trying to tell someone they have to pronounce something a certain way leads to the victory of our grammatical overlords.
  2. Most people pronounce “GIF” as /gɪf/, and it’s obvious that if most people do something, it must be a good idea.
  3. Pronouncing “GIF” as /d͡ʒɪf/ directly infringes on the rights of the acronym to represent words accurately, lest the acronym become an AGGRONYM.
  4. Agreeing with Wilhite when he says that the “right” way to say “GIF” is /d͡ʒɪf/ is basically pledging allegiance to the dark side. Sure, you have the right to do it — but should you? I mean, what would Chomsky do?

Therefore, it is strongly recommended, but not required, that the word “GIF” be pronounced /gɪf/.

MAGA: Make Acronyms Great Again.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store