The politics of soft “g”

Soft or hard “g”? It’s been in the news lately in relation to the file format “gif,” which is currently enjoying a renaissance as a new generation discovers its usefulness in creating annoying animations. This week the “creator” of the Graphical Interchange Format weighed in that he’s always pronounced it with a soft “g.”

Arika Okrent gives some historical context on the sources of “g” words in English. Soft “g” is actually one of the world’s most controversial sounds, along with “sh”, “r” and “l,” and this is hardly the first pronunciation fight over it, as noticed by the singer Frank Black:

I heard them saying “Los Angeles”
In old black-and-white movies,
And if you think there’s nothing to this,
How come we say “Los Angeles”?

Black pronounces the first “Los Angeles” with a hard “g,” and the second with a soft “g.” There are vowel differences as well, but the “g” is the most salient difference. A friend of mine sent me this song back in 1994, and I happened to know the answer to Frank Black’s question because I had just read it in an obituary for the linguist Dwight Bolinger by his colleague Robert Stockwell. In 1952, as Chair of the Department of Spanish and Italian at the University of Southern California, Bolinger served on a mayoral “jury” appointed to decide the pronunciation of the name of the city. The jury was supposed to have an answer for the 171st anniversary of the founding of the city on September 4, but admitted they were deadlocked. On September 9 they announced that they had come to a decision, which Stockwell credited to Bolinger:

From a linguistic point of view, the real possibilities, no matter how they came to be represented in the press, were, of course, only these three: [losáŋxeles], [lasǽndʒələs], and [lasǽŋgələs]. The third version, with [g], was favored by the mayor and most Anglo natives of Southern California who expressed opinions in the polls (over a thousand of them, not counting columnists). Hispanics predictably preferred the first version because it is correct Spanish. Bolinger apparently persuaded the jury, contrary to the two opinions most favored in the polls, that ‘Loss-An-juh-less’ should be recommended, and there are headlines all over the newspapers of early September 1952 citing Bolinger as the one responsible for ‘the phonetic syllables’ and quoting him as saying that, ‘from a Spanish language standpoint, the pronunciation is not as much at variance with the true Spanish as that employing the hard “g”. (Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1952). What he had done was diplomatically persuade the jury to accept the pronunciation which is in accord with English orthographic traditions. It should be added that he was consistent: for his own name he preferred [báləndʒər] though his son prefers and has always insisted on [bóliŋər].

The current soft “g” pronunciation of “Los Angeles” was actually crafted by Bolinger as a compromise between the hard “g” preferred by Anglos and the jota used by Hispanics. It just happened that it fit with Bolinger’s own agenda. In 2011, the L.A. Times compiled more details from its reports at the time. Of course, in 1952 “the mayor prayed that civic pride would prevent its citizens from ever, ever referring to it as ‘L.A.’,” but really, that’s what they do today.

Stan Carey argues that “You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like,” and echoes another linguist’s pronouncement from the early 1950s, “Leave your language alone.” In this particular case I’m with Carey: I don’t really care how “gif” gets pronounced; I just want people to stop using them so much, especially those annyoing 4-up captioned screencaps. But as the “Los Angeles” case indicates, some pronunciation choices do have political consequences. To paraphrase Deborah Cameron and Joshua Fishman, we can’t leave our language alone because it’s not just ours. It’s community property, and if we don’t take care of it others will mess it up.

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