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  • I thought this debate was settled.

  • I thought that /gɪf/, with a hard G, had won.

  • But apparently not.

  • It is more popular than /ʤɪf/, but it's not a landslide.

  • In a 2014 survey, only 70% of people said /gɪf/.

  • And the format's creator, Steve Wilhite, argues that it should be /ʤɪf/, and has been arguing that for a long time.

  • In fact, when the Webby Awards let him give one of their famous five-words-only acceptance speeches, he said, " It's pronounced /ʤɪf/, not /gɪf/."

  • This is the slide he put up with that, and uh, yeah, you can see the problem there.

  • Now, one of the most fundamental principles of modern linguistics is descriptivism.

  • There should be no value judgment about particular words or pronunciations or types of speech.

  • There must be no correct way to speak handed down from on high.

  • We describe how people speak, if language changes, we change with it.

  • So the Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations, despite Steve Wilhite calling them "Wrong. End of story."

  • Turns out, even if you invented a word, you don't get to make the call on how it's pronounced.

  • Whether he likes it or not, /gɪf/ is the more common pronunciation.

  • That said: Linguistics also gives us the tools to look at all the other words in English and figure out, "Well, okay. We've got this new word. What other words is it most like?"

  • You might hear the argument that /gɪf/ is short for Graphics Interchange Format.

  • Graphics, not /ʤ/raphics.

  • But that's not how English treats acronyms.

  • In JPEG, the P isn't short for "potography."

  • In the same way, laser isn't pronounced "lass-uhr," and scuba isn't "scubb-uh."

  • So rather than acronyms, what about other English words?

  • Well, in the red corner: git, gift, gaffer. In the blue corner: gin, gist, gel.

  • Ok, so if you went through the whole dictionary, which side would have more words?

  • Well, in 2015, a researcher called Michael Dow did just that, only counting the words that have one morpheme.

  • So words like "gift," you can't break that down into smaller lexical parts.

  • "Gift-ed" wouldn't count, you can break that down into "gift" and "ed."

  • So just using those really basic words, it's a victory for the /ʤɪf/-ers.

  • There are more words where "g-i" is pronounced /ʤɪ/ than /gɪ/.

  • But... the /gɪ/ words are are used more often, so the likelihood of each pronunciation is about equal.

  • But if you only look at words that start with g-i, /gɪ/ is more common.

  • So now we're on a question of psycholinguistics!

  • When we read a new word, do we consider all the times we've seen those letters before anywhere, or do we favor ones that are in the same position?

  • And even if we do, why do we pick one over the other?

  • Unless you're very young, GIF is a word that you almost certainly read before you heard.

  • And the first time you ever saw those three letters, your brain instantly tried to match them to patterns you already knew.

  • Gib, gift, gin, git, give.

  • Maybe /ʤ/ill or /g/ill, both of which are valid English words, one's an old measurement, one's a part of a fish.

  • /ʤ/illingham or /g/illingham, both English towns, a couple of hundred miles apart.

  • In a split second, your brain went through everything that it knew about g-i, decided which pronunciation you thought was right, and then locked that in your head.

  • The correct answer is, of course...

  • My co-author Gretchen McCulloch has a great podcast called Lingthusiasm, that covers all sorts of things like this.

  • I recommend it, and the link is in the description.

I thought this debate was settled.

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