[lg policy] Battle Over =?windows-1252?Q?=91GIF=92_?=Pronunciation Erupts

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 24 14:30:33 UTC 2013

Battle Over ‘GIF’ Pronunciation Erupts

It has been called “The Great Schism of the 21st Century” and “The Most
Absurd Religious War in Geek History.”

The debate over how to pronounce GIF, which stands for Graphics Interchange
Format, re-emerged this week when Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the widely
used Web illustration, declared it should be pronounced “jif,” like the
brand of peanut butter, rather than with a hard G sound.

He made the statement first in an interview with The New York Times, then
in an acceptance speech at the annual Webby Awards on Tuesday, where he
received a lifetime achievement award.

Mr. Wilhite incited a debate that generated 17,000 posts on Twitter, 50
news articles and plenty of tongue-in-cheek outrage.

“You can have my hard ‘G’ when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” Tracy
Rotton, a Web developer from Washington, D.C., wrote on Twitter.

“Nannernannernanner,” wrote one person on Twitter. “Pffffffffffffff,”
posted another. Steve Wilhite's five-word acceptance speech at the 2013
Webby Awards, where he was given a lifetime achievement award. Steve
Wilhite’s five-word acceptance speech at the 2013 Webby Awards, where he
was given a lifetime achievement award.

So what is going on? Elizabeth Pyatt, a linguist at Penn State University,
has a theory: Cultures typically associate a “standard” pronunciation as a
marker of status. Mispronouncing a word — even a technical term — can cause
feelings of shame and inadequacy. If people believe there is a logical
basis for their pronunciation, they are not apt to give it up.

In the case of the GIF, there is logic to saying it with the hard G used to
pronounce “graphic.”

Mr. Wilhite created the file format in 1987 when he was working as a
programmer for CompuServe, the nation’s first major online service. The
company wanted to display color weather maps, but existing image
technologies took up too much bandwidth for slow dial-up connections. Mr.
Wilhite thought he could help.

“I saw the format I wanted in my head and then I started programming,” he
said in an e-mail. Mr. Wilhite primarily uses e-mail to communicate now,
after suffering a stroke in 2000.

The first image he created was a picture of an airplane. Today, GIFs are
commonly used for short animations on the Web.

Tuesday night, Mr. Wilhite was greeted onstage at the Webby Awards by David
Karp, the 26-year-old founder of Tumblr who this week sold his company to
Yahoo for $1.1 billion.

The Webby Awards, a 17-year-old annual event where more than 60 awards are
given for everything from online journalism to design, has a timesaving
tradition: All acceptance speeches must be five words or less.

Mr. Wilhite displayed his five-word speech on a screen above the stage:
“It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’” The audience roared with approval, and
it appeared as though the question was settled.

Not so. Those who had been pronouncing GIF with a hard G were shocked, or
as one blog headline put it, “Flabber-jasted.” Mr. Wilhite was attacked as
a “soft-g zealot,” and dissenters said his decree made as much sense as
calling graphics “jraphics.”

White House staff members also weighed in on Twitter to remind the country
that the Obama administration had already ruled on the subject, in a chart
released on April 26, which explained the administration’s Tumblr strategy
and highlighting GIFs, noting the hard G pronunciation.

The “JIF” camp, meanwhile, was giddy with feelings of righteousness.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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