IPA (short for International Phonetic Alphabet, not Indian Pale Ale) is a method of notating pronunciation that was invented in the late 19th century
because English spelling is a pain in the neck. It is used by linguistics, language students, and anyone who wants to see how a word is pronounced. It can notate every spoken language (though some are notably much clunkier than others), but for English, just look at this helpful Wiki page.
TL;DR: If you see stuff like this /ðɪs/, that is the pronunciation of a word.
- “Hard G because Graphics” is not a valid argument.
- There's more evidence that GIF is pronounced “jif” than that it's pronounced “ghif”.
- GIF is pronounced “jif” because them's the rules of the English language!
Step 1: Pronunciation of Acronyms
Acronyms are pronounced like a normal word. Just because an acronym contains a word that starts with a sound, it doesn't mean that the acronym has that sound there.
- SCUBA /ˈskuːbʌ/ is short for Self-Contained Underwater /ˌʌndɚˈwɔːtɚ/ Breathing Apparatus
- NATO /ˈneɪ̯toʊ̯/ is short for North-Atlantic /ʌtˈlæntɪk/ Treaty Organization
- AIDS /ˈeɪ̯d͡z/ is short for Acquired /ʌˈkwɑɪ̯.ɚd/ Immunodeficiency Syndrome /ˈsɪndroʊ̯m/
- GOES /goʊz/ is short for Geostationary /d͡ʒioʊˈsteɪʃənəri/ Operational /ɑpəˈreɪʃənəl/ Environmental /ɛnvɑɪrəˈmɛntəl/ Satellite /ˈsætəlɑɪt/
- GEOS /d͡ʒiːoʊs/ is short for Graphic /ˈgræfɪk/ Environment /ɛnˈvɑɪrəmɛnt/ Operating /ˈɑpəreɪtɪŋ/ System
- And, of course, as you will see by the time you finish this page, GIF /d͡ʒɪf/ is short for Graphics /ˈgræfɪks/ Interchange Format.*
TL;DR: “Hard G because Graphics” is not a valid argument.
Step 2: Pronunciation of the Letter G in the English Language
In most words, the letter G is pronounced as a hard G /ɡ/ before A, O, or U, and as a soft G /d͡ʒ/ before E, I, or Y. This pattern is echoed in various European languages too.
[Source 1] [Source 2]
English has two main sources of words: Germanic and Romance/Latinate; we could also call them “Viking words” and “European words”. Let's get the exceptions out of the way: Viking words pronounce the letter G as a hard G, all the time. So words like “anger”, “get”, and “gift” all have a hard G, despite being before an E, I, or Y. Other sources outside of Europe may also be an exception, like “geisha” (Japanese) or “pierogi” (Polish).
However, there are only 64 of these exceptions. (Really, I counted.) So we can discard these special words when talking about the English language in general. Sure, you could argue that GIF is one of these Viking words, but that’s unlikely and beside the point.
European words, and most European languages*, follow the rule that the letter G is pronounced differently before an E, I, or Y. In fact, there are so many of these European words that the vast majority of English words are European!
In fact, even if you only count 3 letter words with a G followed by E, I, or Y, the soft G has more words on its side. There are only 4 words that are pronounced with a hard G (get, gib, gig, git), as opposed to soft G (gee, gel, gem, gen, gin, gip, gym, gyp).
TL;DR: There's more evidence that GIF is pronounced “jif” than that it's pronounced “ghif”.
Step 3: Treatment of Newly Created Words
This section is just this one statement: Newly created words get a pronunciation. If the word’s etymology doesn’t hint to a pronunciation, the word gets a logical pronunciation based on the rules of English. That’s it, end of sentence.
That’s not saying that GIF is pronounced “jif” just because Steve Wilhite said so; it’s saying that the rules of the English language ends up pronouncing GIF like that anyway.
TL;DR: GIF is pronounced “jif” because them’s the rules of the English language!
* Fun fact: GIF was named GIF to purposely be prononuced like JIF peanut butter. Choosy developers choose GIF! ↑
* Italian uses the same sound as us /d͡ʒ/ for their soft G, while French /ʒ/, Spanish /x/, and even Swedish /j/ have different sounds for soft G.↑
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.