This Web page is an instruction on how to say the word “GIF” out loud, and the reasons behind why it is said like it is. This page is dedicated to those who are confused and want to learn what the correct pronunciation is, or those who want to convince a dear friend to see the world the same way you do.
This is not meant to counter any arguments; that is done in the big red link above. This is a documentation of the facts, of what the rules of the English language has to say about the pronunciation of GIF. If you have any problems with the text below, send them to me via Twitter after looking through the rebuttals page.
Table of Contents
This page’s headlines are in the format of what someone pronouncing GIF with a hard G might say:
- You’re wrong.
- How is it the logical pronunciation?
- But GIF is a made-up word!
- But gift is pronounced with a hard G.
- But graphics is pronounced with a hard G.
- Okay, but that only means it could be either...
- That's just from Steve Wilhite.
- Everyone says it my way.
- Are there valid arguments for pronouncing it with a hard G?
Note: In this page, every soft G is notated in green, and every hard G in red.
Actually, the “Jif” pronunciation is the correct one, by a factor of three:
- It is linguistically logical to pronounce GIF that way.
- Full form of acronyms have no effect on the final pronunciation.
- The person who made GIF made the name a pun with Jif peanut butter.
These points backed by linguistics, combined by a lack of solid arguments on the “ghif” side, are the reasons why GIF is correctly pronounced /d͡ʒɪf/ (“jif”), with a soft G.
The word GIF is pronounced like the peanut butter brand. End of story.
How is it the logical pronunciation?
Well, it’s not the only logical pronunciation. Get ready to learn some basic linguistics!
English spelling is so convoluted that even Phonics or the I-Before-E rule fails. Say hello to fuchsia (few-sha, not futch-see-a), Wednesday (wends-day, not wed-nes-day), colonel (kernel, not colon-L) and island (eye-land, not is-land). From a purely linguistic standpoint, a word spelled “g-i-f” could either be pronounced with a hard G or a soft G.
That is because English has taken in words from various sources, most of them from Germanic and Romance languages.
Germanic languages, whose descendants include German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian tongues, gave us words like “gut”, “gift”, or “greet”. In Germanic languages, all of the G’s are pronounced with a hard G.
On the contrary, Romance languages have two pronunciations of G: the hard G and the soft G. In modern Romance languages like Italian or French, the soft G is just like our soft G (strictly speaking, French uses ⟨ʒ⟩ instead), while some others have a radically different pronunciation, like Spanish. Despite there being two different pronunciations for G, the rules are quite simple, and it only involves the next letter:
- When the G is before E, I, or Y, it is a soft G.
- When the G is on its own, before a consonant, or before A, O, or U, it is a hard G.
- When a G has to be pronounced hard before E, I, or Y, an extra letter has to be added, which is usually H or a silent U.
- Digraphs like ng, gg, or dge have their own rules, which are not relevant to this debate, an therefore will be glossed over.
Here are some examples:
- French: gentil, garçon, naviguer
- Italian: gioco, godere, spaghetti
- Spanish: girar, gato, guiar
- English words of Romance origin: gem, garage, guide
You can read about this linguistic phenomenon called “palatalization” on Jemully Media.
The interesting point is: There are 12 three-letter words in the English language that start with the letter G, which is followed by an E, I, or Y. 8 of those follow the rule above. 4 of those don’t.
But acronyms like GIF don't have an original language!
Yes, in theory, a word spelled “g-i-f” could be pronounced either way, but in practice, it should be pronounced GIF—with a soft G. This section was just to debunk the argument that “ghif” is the only logical pronunciation. The wealth of evidence for “GIF” with a soft G will follow right after this.
But “gift” has “gif” in it, and that’s a hard G!
So what you’re saying is: removing a letter keeps the rest of the word’s pronunciation the same. But did you test that rule on pin(t), van(e), quit(e), hear(d), hears(e), strip(e), dim(e), needles(s), cares(s), though(t), and stamped(e)? Adding one letter can change the pronunciation quite a lot.
Also, there is another word that starts with G-I-F, which appears in the scientific name Verrucosispora gifhornensis. This derives from the German city named Gifhorn, which has a hard G before an I because it’s in German. However, by making it a Latin word, then borrowing it into English, the G is now pronounced with a soft G, because that’s how borrowing a word from Latin works.
But the G stands for graphics, not ‘jraphics’!
Yes, and that doesn’t matter. JPEG isn’t pronounced “jayfeg”, despite it standing for “Joint Photographic Experts Group”. Scuba (Yes, that’s an acronym) isn’t pronounced “scubba”, despite it standing for “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus”. And don’t even get me started on “INTERCAL”, which stands for (and this is true) “Compiler Language with No Pronounceable Acronym”.
Pronunciation of acronyms tends to follow pronunciation rules like any regular word. So the point here is, just because the word behind the G in GIF is “graphics”, it doesn't do anything to your argument of the word GIF.
Still not convinced? Here’s another example, this time involving the letter G. Say “GOES”, in the first way you can think of. I bet you said “goes”, like the actual word, but do you know what that stands for? “Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite”. You didn’t say “Joes”, even though the G stands for “Geostationary”, with a soft G.
Okay, maybe you’re still not convinced because none of them have the specific word “graphic(s)” in it. Well, here are 2 examples: GEM (Graphics Environment Manager) and GEOS (Graphic Environment Operating System).
At this point, you have to admit that “the jraphics argument” is just an ad-hoc rationalization instead of a real rule.
Okay, but that just says that it could be GIF with a hard G or GIF with a soft G.
Here’s where the proof comes in. Consider the following:
The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), pronounced "JIF", was designed by CompuServe and the official specification released in June of 1987.
That is from the documentation of CompuShow, a graphics display program by the same people behind the GIF.
Oh, incidentally, it’s pronounced “JIF”
That is one of the lines of text used to demonstrate the GIF89 format’s feature to display text over a GIF. It was a picture of CompuShow’s author Bob Berry and, presumably, written by him too. Retrieved from The GIF Pronunciation Page by Steve Olsen.
The pronunciation of “GIF” is specified in the GIF specification to be “jif”, as in “jiffy”, rather then[sic] “gif”, which most people seem to prefer.
That is from The Graphics File Formats FAQ.
I worked with the creator of GIF (Steve Wilhite) when I was still employed by CompuServe. Steve always pronounced it “jiff” and would correct those who pronounced it with a hard G. “Choosy developers choose GIF” (spinning off of a historically popular peanut butter commercial).That is from Charlie Reading, formerly employed by CompuServe, as featured in an article on TidBITS.
I worked at Adobe Systems, makers of Photoshop, from 2000 to 2002 as a designer. While there, we talked about web design and image creation and GIFs, and no one ever pronounced the word with a hard G (as in “gift” versus “gist”). I worked with Cisco Systems on a web design curriculum; no one there pronounced the word with a hard G either. [...] There was never any question of how GIF was pronounced—or, at least, any fervent debate—until the last five years or so.
We do this all the time as we age — we read a word we’re not familiar with and then guess how it’s pronounced. That in and of itself is perfectly fine. But what’s not OK is to defend that mispronunciation in the face of countervailing evidence, any more than it would be to argue with your English teacher about how you pronounce another word you might have read and then mispronounced.
That is from Philip Bump from The Wire.
Also look at ThioJoe’s brilliant explanation of this pronunciation.
There’s about one million words in the English language, and statistically, about 1.95% of them begin with a G. That’s 19,500 words that begin with a G. On Wikipedia, there’s an article that’s literally a list of words where a hard G is used instead of a soft G, so the fact that you can create an article small enough to list them should clue you in a bit.
There are 61 words on that list. Let’s even round it up to a hundred. 100 out of 19,500 is 0.5%.
So you would rather argue that GIF is the exception to a rule that’s followed 99.5% of the time, instead of admitting that you've never looked up the grammar rule in the first place.
And last but not least, here’s a direct quote from Steve Wilhite himself.
Don’t you get it? It’s a pun!
But that's just from Steve Wilhite.
So? Steve Wilhite invented the word. He has the right to declare that GIF follows the pronunciation rule for Romance words (which, by the way, is followed in 99.5% of all words that have G in it anyway), as opposed to that for Germanic words.
Normal words have a long history of pronunciation changing as time goes by, and nobody owns that word or the right to declare how to pronounce it. However, coined words such as GIF don’t have that history, and the inventor’s words stand in for it.
It is true that obviously absurd and rule-breaking words will not be pronounced that way, or will be respelled, as was the case for “gaol” (with a soft G before an A (?!)), read, and later respelled by 1830, as “jail”. However, I’m still waiting on the spelling of “margarine” to change back to being a hard G; nobody is sure why people started pronouncing it with a soft G, and English is the only language that pronounces the G in “margarine” soft.
But everybody says it that way. (arbitrary number) million ‘GHIF’-ers can't be wrong.
Just because everybody does it, doesn't mean it's right. “Everybody does it” is the #1 excuse to start doing drugs and other common but wrong things. Appeal to belief is valid only when the question is whether the belief exists; therefore, the argument that “everybody says ‘GHIF’” only tells you that “there exist people who say ‘GHIF’”.
While, yes, a great part of language is a group of people agreeing on what to call things and how to string those words together, it’s also important to know what population we are talking about. Some words “belong” to a population, and are called “technical terms” or “jargon”.
In music theory, “timbre” is pronounced like the start of “tambourine”. Would you and the rest of the population who haven’t learned music theory dispute that “timber” (as in “Watch out, I’m felling a tree”) is the correct pronunciation, despite every musician being on board with the “incorrect” pronunciation?
In cooking, “bruschetta” is pronounced “brew SKET tuh”. Would you and the rest of the population who haven’t learned cooking dispute that “brush et tuh” is the correct pronunciation, despite every chef (and Italian) agreeing on the contrary?
GIF is the same way. Ask any computer scientist and engineer who was first exposed to GIFs in their work, spoken out loud, as opposed to the rest of the population who first saw the word “GIF” on their smartphone displays. They are the specialists. Do you really want to die on the hill that your ignorance is just as good as their expertise?
Are there any valid arguments for pronouncing it “Ghif”?
No. I have yet to see a valid argument for pronouncing it ghif.
Another weak argument from the fervent “ghiffers” that I didn’t bring up yet is “If you have to explain it, it’s not right”. Shout-out to How to “Really” Pronounce GIF for making up this argument:
Speaking of Steve Wilhite, when he explains the pronunciation of GIF, he himself has to explicitly write, “It’s pronounced ‘JIF’.” He has to explain it this way because it goes against how it would naturally be pronounced.
To whom I say, Good luck using anything more complicated than a stick with no explanation. And in fact, the more logical pronunciation is with a soft G, which I have explained further up in the page.
And of course, we have the ever-so-persistent “It’s graphics, not jraphics”. We can thank the not-a-linguist-either Chris Hardwick for this P.R.A.T.T. (Pun not intended) I have explained why that is stupid here.
That should cover all the rebuttals for the arguments that GIF should be pronounced with a hard G. Maybe we’re more prescriptivistic than we need to be, but someone has to regulate this world to bring order into the chaos. If you have more to say, however, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @HTCPGif (short for How To Correctly Pronounce GIF).
Okay, maybe you’re right. What now?
It’s never too late to change your mind. You can start pronouncing GIF correctly today. It may take a little getting used to, but I promise you, it will be worth it. When you see someone who pronounces it with a hard G, don't be hostile towards them; just gently point towards this page, tell them that they were doing it wrong all along, but don't give up until they admit they were wrong.
Bonus: What does Jeopardy think?
Jeopardy verifies that GIF has a soft G:
Unfortunately, unlike How To “Really” Pronounce GIF.com, we don’t have spare money to throw around selling pointless, wrongly-opinionated stuff, and I doubt that our supporters do either.
Written by Haruki Wakamatsu
References linked in-text
Last edited 2020 May 22