Exit 86. One side is clearly correct and the other is clearly wrong.

I’m going to weigh in here on a controversial issue: the pronunciation of “.gif,” a file type used for computer graphics.  The file format was created in the early days of the Internet for the quick sending and receiving of color logos and icons (but the format is not ideal for photographs).  Short animated icons, like those little pictures you can add into Facebook messages, also often use the .gif format.  Ever since the coining of this term, there has been a great deal of debate regarding whether this term should be pronounced with a hard G (like the G in the word “give”) or with a soft G (like “Jif,” the brand of peanut butter).

Those who advocate the soft G pronunciation typically point out that a G before E, I, or Y is pronounced soft in English, as in gin, gym, or germ.  When I was in elementary school, this rule was taught in the early grades as part of the reading and spelling curricula, although I’ve met many younger people who act like they never learned this rule.  Those who favor the hard G pronunciation point out that English spelling rules often have widespread exceptions (get, girl, gynecologist), and that the term “.gif” itself is an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format, and “graphics” is pronounced with a hard G.

What is interesting about this debate is that, other than most other controversial issues, one side is clearly correct and the other is clearly wrong.  The correct pronunciation is “jif.”  It is a well-documented fact that Steve Wilhite, the programmer who led the team that created .gif, has said many times that the correct pronunciation is “jif.”  The argument that “graphics” has a hard G is completely irrelevant; there is no precedent for pronouncing the letters in acronyms the way they are pronounced in their parent words.  For example, the U and A in “scuba” stand for “underwater” and “apparatus,” respectively, yet the pronunciation of these letters in “scuba” does not match the pronunciation in “underwater” or in “apparatus.”  If we stay within the world of computer graphics, “.jpeg” is consistently pronounced “jay-peg,” even though the P stands for “photographic,” which does not contain the P sound from the syllable “peg.”

To me, this debate seems to parallel the debate between absolute vs. relative morality.  Yes, that escalated quickly, but follow me here.  Are some things absolutely right or wrong in every circumstance, or is everything relative to the surrounding circumstances?  Many monotheistic religious traditions, including Christianity, have Scriptures that dictate some moral absolutes.  Other belief systems may say that the world changes, and what is right and wrong is never set in stone for all time.  In Christianity, for example, God gave his people commandments on which to base their moral standards and laws.  God created the universe and the human race, which gives him the right and the responsibility to dictate morality.  Of course, there is considerable debate surrounding which Scriptures are meant to be absolute morals, and which are meant to be specific instructions to specific cultures.  For example, are Paul’s teachings about the way women should dress in response to a specific issue at the church in first-century Corinth, or something that all Christian women should follow for all time?  Were Paul’s writings about homosexuality meant to address the specific ways that the first-century Romans were committing infidelity, or the general concept that homosexual relations themselves are not God’s design for humanity?  I’m not going to try to answer those questions here.  But it is difficult to call oneself a true follower of Christianity without acknowledging that there are at least some moral absolutes dictated by God, and the same is true for many other belief systems that involve deities.

Dictionaries that include “.gif” as a word are inconsistent as to which pronunciation is listed, as well as which pronunciation is listed first if they include both.  A similar debate to that of absolute or relative morality is that of prescriptive or descriptive dictionaries.  Should a dictionary prescribe what is correct in language, or should it describe common usage, even though what is commonly used may have been considered incorrect at one time?  Historically, languages have evolved naturally, and different dialects of the same language separated by large geographical distances and limited contact eventually become less mutually intelligible and give birth to new languages.  This is how Latin eventually became Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian, for example.  Is the hard-G pronunciation of “.gif” a natural evolution of language, or is it something that Mr. Wilhite has a right to call incorrect?  It is interesting that those who use evolution of language to justify using their preferred obnoxious slang terms, like “bae” as a term of affection, are rarely so quick to justify using equally obnoxious slang terms that contrast with their existing views, like “gay” or “retarded” as synonyms for “stupid.”  Again, note the interesting parallel with moral relativism.

Fortunately, this is not a moral issue.  It is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things if one pronounces “.gif” with a hard G, and no one gets hurt by it.  I won’t think less of you as a human being if you use the hard G.  But thinking about this really just goes to show how powerful language can be in shaping our thinking.  The way I see it, though, for this one specific word, it is pretty clear that the word was coined by one specific individual who intended for it to be pronounced with a soft G.  So I will continue to pronounce it like “jif.”