Language is such a unique and complex skill. It is something that only humans are able to do. The origin of language is one of the greatest mysteries in human science. There are about 5000 languages spoken in the world today, a third of them in Africa. Languages are linked to each other by shared words, sounds or grammatical constructions. Languages gradually change over time, sometimes due to changes in culture and fashion, sometimes in response to contact with other languages. But the basic architecture and expressive power of language stays the same.
English evolved from several other languages, and is spoken by people who come from different backgrounds, many times as a second language. You therefore sometimes have a situation where different people pronounce the same word differently, leading to constant debate surrounding the correct pronunciation of the word. What complicates this even further is that some words are read much more than they are spoken, like our first example below, which leads to even more variation and debate.
We all know that the etymology (origin) of a word partly determines its pronunciation. However, does the coiner/originator of a word determine how a word should be pronounced? Should this be considered as the word evolves? Does the originator have “dibs” or do they lose control once the word is out there?
We’ll briefly take a look at three examples of words that are very commonly pronounced differently from how the originator intended. We’ll wrap it up by listing a couple of very commonly mispronounced English words.
As our first example clearly illustrates: Outside of an educational environment, pronunciation and language is dealt with intuitively.
1. GIF – Steve Wilhite
The GIF pronunciation debate has been a long debate, spanning over 3 decades.
GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format. It was released by Steve Wilhite in June 1987, when he worked for Compuserve, the first online service provider in the U.S. Even though the first word “graphics’ is pronounced with a hard G, Steve himself called it “JIF” with a soft G, and he intended it to be pronounced that way. In the technical documentation for the image format, Wilhite unambiguously stated that it was “pronounced JIF“.
He reiterated this in 2013 while receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Webby Awards. It was the subject of his five-word acceptance speech (that’s all the Webby’s allow). He insisted that the Oxford English Dictionary (which accepts both pronunciations) was wrong.
There has always been a lot of debate about the correct pronunciation, with majority of people pronouncing it contrary to how the original creator intended, that is, with a hard G. “GIF” instead of “JIF.” Many people disagree with Steve, one of the many reasons given being that the G stands for Graphics, a word that is pronounced with a hard G.
It is one of the words that most people have read before they have heard it, and that is why most people will pronounce it as they instinctually think they should. It seems that most people’s instinct is to pronounce it as “GIF.” I noticed that my daughters did this as well; they first saw the word written when they were young, and instinctually called it GIF with a hard G. Proponents of this way of pronouncing it state that it’s the most natural, logical way to pronounce it, and that’s why everyone who comes across the word for the first time uses a hard G to pronounce it. According to GIPHY, a large GIF database launched in 2013, it’s pronounced as “GIF” with a hard G.
Linguistically, the hard-G pronunciation of the letter G usually precedes an a, o, or u (for example good, guy or gas). On the other hand, the soft-G precedes an i, e, or y (for example analogy, giraffe or German). There are exceptions, of course, such as girl, give or gift. In this case, the G in GIF is followed by an i. Some studies have found that past usage of “gi” in words has been almost evenly split between hard and soft G sounds.
However, do we see acronyms as words? Do they follow the same linguistic rules? Are they pronounced separately as in CNN, BBC, and so on? What rules are followed when pronouncing JPEG? Does the original word in this case “graphics” stay pronounced the same if the acronym is not pronounced separately as initials?
What makes it even more complicated is that there are existing words that are pronounced “JIF” and not spelled as “GIF”, for example in “jiffy” and the Jif peanut butter brand that inspired Steve to pronounce GIF as “JIF.” There is also an existing JIF acronym (JPEG International Format.)
Web designer Aaron Bazinet secured the domain howtoreallypronouncegif.com and goes into detail on why it should be pronounced with a hard G. One of the interesting points he raises is that Steve WIlhite chose JIF as the pronunciation to echo the American peanut butter brand Jif, to play off one of their commercials whose catchphrase was that Choosy mothers choose Jif, ergo Choosy developers choose GIF (jif). He therefore argues that if the peanut butter brand had never existed, Steve would have likely never pronounced it with a soft G. He also says that the fact that Steve has to keep clarifying that it’s pronounced as JIF proves that it goes against how it naturally should be pronounced.
As stated earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees with Steve, and accepts both pronunciations. It goes further to clarify that pronunciation with a hard G is more widespread and more readily understood. Even though Steve disagrees with them, John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary reminds Steve that a coiner effectively loses control of a word once it’s out there.
The question is, do you get to decide how a word is pronounced if you coin the word? Or do you lose control of its pronunciation once it’s out there?
Interestingly, some people enunciate all three letters, like an acronym. So that technically means that there are three ways to pronounce GIF, not two.
This seems to be part and parcel of computing. Many terms are niche, and predominantly occur in written rather than spoken contexts. Pronouncing these out loud can naturally lead to arguments. For example, should the file name extension, .exe, be said as EK-see or as an initialism? Acronyms, being short, are less likely to have guide characters that help indicate how other letters should be pronounced.
Does it matter how we pronounce it?
One of the most important take home points for me as I have watched the debate over the years is to remember not to weaponize a trivial and harmless consonant difference to make other people feel bad and self-conscious about themselves.
So, how do you pronounce GIF?
2. Ecological Niche – G. Evelyn Hutchinson
This is not exactly an identical situation to the GIF-JIF debate, as the word niche existed before it was used by G. Evelyn Hutchinson. However, it still comes as a surprise that he pronounced it not as the majority do (he was British), and that the word “niche” is pronounced differently in different parts of the world.
The concept of the Ecological niche was developed by the father of modern ecology, British ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson (1903-1991). Hutchinson (1957) defined a niche as a region in a multi-dimensional space of environmental factors that affect the welfare of a species. A species’ niche is all of the environmental factors and interspecies relationships that influence the species. If a habitat has conditions within a species’ niche, a population should persist without immigration from external sources, whereas if conditions are outside the niche, it faces extinction.
Contrary to how many people pronounce it in British English, Hutchinson pronounced the “niche” in “Ecological Niche” as “nitch” rather than “neesh.”
As is often debated, how should people pronounce the word “niche’?
There are two most commonly used pronunciation variants, that are both considered correct: “Neesh” (rhymes with sheesh) and “nich” (rhymes with pitch). “Nich” is surprisingly the more common one and the older of the two pronunciations. It is the only pronunciation given in all English dictionaries until the 20th century.
“Neesh” was first listed as a pronunciation variant in 1917 in Daniel Jones’s English Pronouncing Dictionary. “Neesh” wasn’t listed as a pronunciation in Merriam-Webster dictionaries until 1961 in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, and it wasn’t entered into the smaller Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary until 1993. Even then, it was marked in the Collegiate as a pronunciation that was in educated use but not considered acceptable until 2003.
“Nich” has thus been the more historical pronunciation and “neesh” is relatively more recent, likely under influence from French pronunciation conventions. In the U.S. “nich” is still the more common pronunciation (but the use of “neesh” is increasing), while in British English “neesh” is more commonly used.
In terms of etymology, the word “niche” is borrowed from Old French niche, literally ‘recess’, from nicher ‘make a nest’, and based on Latin nidus ‘nest’.
3. Mispronunciation of Names: W. E. B. Du Bois
There are numerous incidents where people’s names are repeatedly mispronounced. However, this specifically stands out to me because Bu Bois placed great emphasis on the correct pronunciation of his surname, and wrote letters to clarify this (see below).
William Edward Burghart Du Bois (1868-1963) was an American sociologist, historian, socialist, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. He was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895 and he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. He wrote extensively and was the best-known spokesperson for African American rights during the first half of the 20th century.
Many people pronounced, and still do pronounce, his surname the French way. He however emphasized several times that this was the wrong pronunciation (he insisted that he did not want his name pronounced the French way) and his letters below clarify the correct pronunciation.
In the above later, dated January 20th 1939, he clarifies that his surname should be pronounced “in the clear English fashion: Du, with u as in Sue; Bois, as oi in voice. The accent is on the second syllable.”
He later clarified this again in a letter dated 3rd December 1946 (below), saying, “The pronunciation of my name is “Du Boyss”, with the accent on the last syllable.
4. More Mispronounced Words That Might Surprise You
To wrap this up, here are some words whose correct pronunciations may surprise you:
- Waistcoat is actually pronounced “wess-cut.”
- Epitome is actually pronounced “ih-pit-uh-mee’. Many people don’t pronounce the last “e”, which is incorrect. The correct pronunciation reflects the Greek roots of the word.
- Jewellery (British) or Jewelry (US) should be pronounced as “jew-ell-ree”, not “jewl-ree.’
- Asterisk’s correct pronunciation is “ass-ter-isk” — not “ass-ter-ix.” There’s no “x” at the end of this word – it’s true to its “k.”
- Triathlon: Many people add a slight “a” syllable where it shouldn’t be, thus pronouncing it as “tri-ath-a-lon.” It’s actually just “tri-ath-lon.”
- Bruschetta should be pronounced true to its Italian origin as “broo-sket-ah”, not “broo-shet-ah.” This is because in Italian, “sch” comes only before “e” or “i,” and is always pronounced like the English “sk.”
- Respite should actually be pronounced as “res-pit”, not “res-pite.”
- Cache should be pronounced as “kash”, not “kash-ay.”
- Silicon and silicone are two different words. They are not synonyms, and are pronounced differently. Silicon is a natural occurring chemical element (the second most common inside the earth’s crust), and silicone is a synthetic polymer made of silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and other elements.
- Lastly, the word “pronunciation” itself. Many people get confused with the sound of the verb form “pronounce” and say ‘pronounciation’ for the noun form, which is incorrect. The correct pronunciation is “pro-nun-see-ay-shun.”