As this is an argument about the underpinnings of the English language, let me be frank—the acronym derived from the word “Graphic Interchange Format” is pronounced with a hard G, “GIF,” like “gift”—not with a soft G, like “jif.”
It’s a debate that has splintered the children of the internet revolution for years, but which simmered down slightly after Steve Wilhite, the creator of the image file format from whence this battle originated, attempted to set the record straight.
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Wilhite told the New York Times. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”
OK, Mr. Wilhite, I get it. You invented this image file format, arguably the most famous of all the image formats out there (because really, who needs a .TIF or a .BMP these days?), for which you even received a Webby lifetime achievement award. I understand this begets a strong, personal connection to the format, one that internet plebeians might take for granted. But while you did invent the cherished format, you did not invent acronyms, nor did you invent the English language. So here is my offering, to you Mr. Wilhite, and all proponents of the jiraffic pronunciation of GIF—a series of linguistic arguments to counter your sole argument, the “because I said so” logical fallacy:
The “G” in GIF stands for Graphic, which is pronounced with a hard G. It’s Graphic Interchange Format; Not Jiraffic Interchange Format.
“Gift” is GIF’s closest neighbor. NYU linguistics professor Lisa Davidson explains that “lexical neighbors” are words in your mental dictionary (lexicon) that are different from other words by one sound. “In the case of GIF, Davidson says, “it’s only one sound off from “gift,” so it’s an exceptionally close lexical neighbor.” Furthermore, every word that starts with G, then a vowel, then an F, is pronounced with a hard G, according to a GIF truther website run by Aaron Bazinet. For example: Gaffe. Gift. Guff. Guffaw.
A computer would pronounce the acronym with a hard “G.” Text-to-speech software uses both phonetic dictionaries (where they look up the pronunciation of words that have been listed explicitly) and grapheme-to-phoneme rules (more general pronunciation rules that can be used to convert unknown written words or acronyms to text), says Frans Adriaans, an NYU professor who specializes in computational linguistics. Because GIF is an acronym and not a word, a computer would use its closest lexical neighbor to determine pronunciation. And as we’ve already indicated, that neighbor is “gift.”
“As linguists, we don't have any opinions on how things should be pronounced, but rather we study why people pronounce words the way they do.” Adriaans said.
And lastly, the reason Wilhite has to use his 15 seconds of Webby Award fame to explain the pronunciation is because our brains logically just want to pronounce it with a hard G. That’s probably also why he has to explicitly write “It’s pronounced ‘JIF’.” Think about it.
All this begs the rather obvious question: Why does this matter? It is a silly little argument, one that has consumed many a web geek’s time to no avail, and for which the most relevant representation has been a GIF itself of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fighting over the correct pronunciation. The answer: It doesn’t, really—unless of course you happen to care about the continued degradation of the English language in a slang-obsessed age.