Grammatic innovation, dramatic pronunciation

May 29, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to report. First up, LOL slash grammar, knowmsayin? looks at recent innovations in how people use LOL and slash, among other terms:

Sometimes . . . existing words get repurposed, switching grammatical classes or incorporating new ones: verbs and adjectives are converted into nouns, and vice versa. This attracts predictable criticism, but it’s a thoroughly ordinary process; nounings and verbings are a large part of the everyday formation of new usages.

Other switches are more unusual.

Linguist John McWhorter has noted that the phrase (Do) you know what I’m saying? is not usually the question it might superficially seem to be,

but rather is “a piece of grammar, soliciting the same sense of empathy and group membership that LOL does”. Given its frequent informal use, the phrase is often compressed into a syllable or two for efficiency. If you search Twitter for nomsayin or knowmsayin, you’ll see how common this is.

I offer a brief synopsis of the broader implications for language (hint: harmless; positive), then the comments extend the discussion: OMG is cited as showing similar semantic drift to LOL, while dot dot dot and full stop are further examples of verbalised punctuation.

You can read the rest here.

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I now pronounce you … Wait, how do I pronounce you? steps back from the recent pavlova palaver over the pronunciation of GIF, to look at other examples of phonological confusion and controversy – and do we place the stress on that word’s first or second syllable?

Macmillan Dictionary includes both pronunciations, and indeed the two forms are legitimate. This point is sometimes missed: people assume there can be just one right way, when in fact there is often more than one. Geography and register may be factors in whether a particular pronunciation of a word is perceived to be correct or appropriate.

A recent humorous article in the Irish Times commented on the social and religious aspects of pronouncing aitch in Northern Ireland. It prompted a flurry of letters on the subject, several of them condemning the proliferation of h-sounds in places the writers considered wrong – including the name of the letter itself.

Since I began with an anecdote from my school days, readers have joined in by sharing stories of pronunciation-related embarrassment and epiphanies (and, included in the post, one of violence). Feel free to add your own.


You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like

May 24, 2013

An impressively silly debate resumed this week over the “correct” pronunciation of GIF. Steve Wilhite, who invented the format, prefers “jif”, and at the recent Webby Awards he shared this opinion (tongue presumably in cheek) through a projected GIF set to Richard Strauss.*

It's pronounced 'jif' not 'gif' - Steve Wilhite at 2013 Webby Awards

Mr Wilhite knows the OED accepts both common pronunciations, hard-g /gɪf/ as in gift and soft-g /dʒɪf/ as in gist. (As do other dictionaries and all right-thinking people.) But the lexicographers, he told the New York Times, “are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

End of story? Well, no. This is English: it’s messy. It misbehaves.

Read the rest of this entry »


How do you pronounce GIF? Does it matter?

December 12, 2012

When Oxford Dictionaries named the acronym GIF (graphics interchange format) as their US word of the year (in its verb use), debates resurfaced over its correct pronunciation. The short answer is that both /gɪf/ and /dʒɪf/ are fine – you can say GIF with the hard g of gift or the soft g of gin. Or you can say the letters: “gee eye eff”.

Some people insist on soft-g GIF, as in “jif”. They say it’s “up to the creators”, and “jif” is what the format’s inventors indicated. But this presumes a non-existent authority: the creators don’t get to lay down a planet-wide law, nor does anyone on their behalf. Pronunciation develops through general agreement – it’s up to everyone who uses the term – and most people seem to prefer hard-g GIF.

Philosoraptor meme - Is it 'gif' or 'gif'Gi- is inherently ambiguous, pronunciation-wise. We have hard-g gift, gills, giddy, give and giggles, soft-g gin, giblets, Gilly, giant and gist.* (There’s a Scandinavian flavour to the hard-g set.) So it’s not surprising the pronunciation of a new gi- term would split this way. But there aren’t many gif- words apart from gift, so it’s not surprising either that hard-g GIF predominates. The g‘s origin in graphics is another factor in its favour.

But there’s no question both are acceptable: Oxford Dictionaries sanction both, as do Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary, each of them based on extensive data of what people say. There is more than one right way – there often is – and declaring otherwise doesn’t make it otherwise.

Soft-g GIF may gradually fade, or it may retain minor currency. A continued split would not be a problem. Millions of people pronounce schedule with a sh- sound; other millions go with sk-. Communication is roomy enough to contain such discrepancies, and if confusion arises people are smart and imaginative enough to figure it out. Though I can’t speak for Philosoraptor.

Out of curiosity, how do you pronounce GIF? Feel free to vote in this poll or to add your thoughts below.

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* In phonetics, /g/ is a voiced velar stop and /dʒ/ is a voiced palato-alveolar affricate.


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