Pronouncing GIF and the folly of looking for sense in an opaque language

The discussion of whether to pronounce picture file format GIF with a soft or a hard ‘g’ is one that, I’m surprised to find, just runs and runs.

For a lot of internet folk, this is an ISSUE and they are RILED about it.

But, the thing is, I’m looking at that sentence and wondering why no one’s arguing about how we pronounce ‘issue’ and ‘riled’. Where’s the internet campaign to pronounce issue as ‘iss-ooh’ and riled as ‘rih-lud’? After all, those pronunciations make as much sense as our pronunciation of GIF (whether you fall in the hard-g or soft-g camp).

The key word there, by the way, is sense. That’s the trouble: there’s no sense in the English language. And trying to impose sense on something fundamentally nonsensical is just a recipe for anger and frustration.

English is an opaque (or non-transparent) language. This jargon-y term just means English doesn’t follow a regular, consistent set of rules. And, often, words aren’t spelled the way they are spoken.

English is a living, breathing thing; it’s a historical document as much as a language. It reflects the, uh, colourful history of England. ‘Colourful history’ is a polite way of saying we’ve been invaded by other countries. And we’ve done quite a bit of invading ourselves! Every invasion has changed the language we speak just a bit. We’ve picked up hundreds of words from other languages over the centuries, creating a cultural mish-mash.

The result is that speaking English involves using many different language rules from many different countries. ‘Chef’ is French. ‘Choir’ is Greek. The French pronounce ‘ch’ as /shuh/, but the Greeks pronounce ‘ch’ with a /kuh/ sound. Since we’ve assimilated both pronunciations into English, both are ‘correct’.

English also keeps evolving. Back when we used to speak Old English, we pronounced the K in ‘know’ and ‘knight’, but now they’re silent. The internet means that English is changing at an even faster speed, as we share our language all around the world.

GIF is just another flashpoint in the infuriating, lovely and utterly nonsensical language of English.

One thought on “Pronouncing GIF and the folly of looking for sense in an opaque language

  1. Great post — I also think the debate almost misses the point: it is the right of the guy who created it to dictate its proper pronunciation. That’s the benefit of being an inventor — the right to name your invention!

    Now I’ve always pronounced “gif” with a hard G, and since the guy isn’t going to be looking into my family room (or my head, since I rarely say it out loud, just read and think it), I’m not going to change how I say it. I’m just going to know that it’s wrong.

    But this mentality of “No, the Internet/consensus says it’s a hard G, so the inventor is WRONG!”…well…I suppose that’s the Internet for you. ;)

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