Why Are There Two Pronunciations for 'G'?

@TimeOutNewYork / @TimeOutNewYork

At the Webby Awards in 2013, Steve Wilhite, creator of the Graphics Interchange Format, asserted his authority in the controversial matter of the proper pronunciation of GIF. His five word acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award was unambiguous and forceful : "It's pronounced 'JIF,' not 'GIF.'" Proponents of the soft-g cheered, while those in the hard-g camp rejected Wilhite's authority, saying that they will continue to damn well say it as they please.

On phonetic grounds, a case can be made for either pronunciation. In English, words beginning with 'g' can have a soft (giraffe) or hard (give) pronunciation, and therein lies the problem. Why are there two g's? And are there any rules governing which one is correct?

We should be glad there are only two alternatives. When the 'g' was first used to write Old English, it stood for four different sounds: a hard g, a soft g, a 'y' sound as in "yes," and a sort of soft gargle we no longer use in English (a voiced velar fricative).

During the Middle English period, we borrowed a lot from French, which used 'g' for a hard g before back vowels (a, o, u) and a soft g before front vowels (i, e). We started to use 'g' in the French way, while another letter (the insular g) took over spelling for the other sounds, before they disappeared or turned into other things.

So we have two g's because French had two g's. Are the rules governing which pronunciation to use the same as the French ones? Not quite. Much of English vocabulary comes from French, but not all of it, and that's where it gets complicated for 'g.' But there are some rules to go by:

1. Hard g before a consonant (glad, great)

2. Hard g before a back vowel (go, garden, gum)

3. Hard g at the end of a word (big, frog, leg)

4. Hard g if it's a Hebrew name (Gideon, Giliad)

5. Hard g before a front vowel in most words of Germanic origin (gift, get, gild)

6. Soft g for a word of Greek origin that starts with gy- (gymnasium, gymnastics, gyroscope). However! There is an exception to this rule for 'gynecology' and other 'gyn-' words.

7. Soft g before a front vowel if the word has a Romance origin (geography, giant, ginger, general)

So where does GIF fit in?

As a word with a g before a front vowel, there are four possible rules (4-7 above) that could apply: hard g if the word origin is Hebrew or Germanic, soft g if it's Greek or Romance. But, alas, GIF is rootless! An etymological golem built from spare parts! And so we are left in a lawless tundra, with no code to live by.

And this is when we start to attack each other.

Some look to the soft g Romans for guidance and some to the hard g Visigoths. Others may side with the hard g Maccabee army or the soft g Greek army. Whoever conquers the land of GIF will be rewarded with plentiful natural reserves of kittens and celebrities. Unfortunately, the prospects don't look good for peace.