Covfefe and the minefield of internet pronunciation
Donald Trump was likely making a typo when he coined “covfefe” in a midnight Tweet, but it left many pondering what the jumble of letters could mean — and debating how to say it.
Despite what Sean Spicer says, the typo is likely meaningless and struggling to understand what Trump thinks generally is pointless. But figuring out how to pronounce words created online isn’t a new challenge. One classic case is gif, with most people using a hard “g” although the creator of the image format argues it was intended to sound like “jif”.
Kim Witten is a researcher at Bytemark Hosting but earned her PhD in linguistics at the University of York, studying what influences how we say the words that originate online, and what our pronunciations say about us. She tells me that the internet has given rise to a whole arena of neologisms without obvious pronunciations, and without an authoritative answer on how they should be said aloud.
Her research focus, for example, was the short form of Metafilter.com, an ancient (in internet terms) precursor to Reddit and Digg. Users of the site call it MeFi. While that’s easier to type out, how do you say it?
“They’ve been arguing playfully but aggressively about this since the terms were coined”
“There’s actually eight different ways to pronounce it,” she said, rattling them off. There’s also a short form of how they describe themselves, MeFites, also with alternative pronunciations. “They’ve been arguing playfully but aggressively about this since the terms were coined at the beginning of the site.”
Having a podcast has helped normalised one pronunciation as standard, she said, but anyone who hasn’t listened to it or attended an in-person meetup probably hasn’t thought about how to say Me-Fi, and won’t realise there are alternatives.
That’s called linguistic awareness. Normally, we don’t actively think about how we speak. “We have mastery of our speech, we just don’t always have conscious awareness of how we go about it or what our thought processes are, because that’s very buried in our consciousness,” Witten explained. “Often times people have arrived at a pronunciation all on their own and have made these judgements, and they’re not even sure why.
Previously, most words evolved through spoken speech, so this wasn’t a problem. “It hasn’t been until the internet and the way that we communicate today that we have loads of new words entering the English language, and they’re entering it through text,” she said. “The last example I can think of is Shakespeare, who created a lot of new words, but he was one person in a position of authority… whereas now we have words coming from all over the place.”
Multiple pronunciations are now a common phenomena in the online world, not least because the internet likes to make up words with weird letter combinations — for example, the name of this very website. “Oftentimes, they’re experiencing these words for the first time in text, so people are having to rely on what they know about the rules of English in their own heads. And a lot of these words are breaking what are called the phonotactic of English, what we know about which letters can go together,” Witten added. “A good example of that is Imgur — we don’t have a good point of reference for what to do with those letters together.”
“The biggest one is the gif war”
How do you say meme, doge, or Linux? Each is disputed by some online. “The biggest one is the gif war,” she said, with the format’s creator insisting we’re all saying it incorrectly, and should pronounce it “jif”.
Witten disagrees: “Positions of authority only work [to decide pronunciations] if it’s part of the word’s history and evolution… you can’t put the kittens back in the cat. People have been arguing about it for so long, it’s almost like he doesn’t have the authority on the term anymore.”
Other creators simply aren’t very helpful when it comes to pronunciations. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, has revealed his own definitive pronunciation, but Witten noted he often says the OS’ name and his own name in different ways, depending on the audience. “He will change the pronunciation of his own name depending on his audience and where he’s at and what he’s speaking about,” she said. “The context is hugely important.”
What’s more, how you say internet-born words can discern if you’re an insider or an outsider when the online world spills offline, with a correct pronunciation of “doge” or GIF suggesting you know what you’re on about. “The more social ingroup pathways you had the more likely you were to choose the more common pronunciation,” Witten said of the Me-Fi dispute.
None of this helps us understand how to say “covfefe”, though given it’s a typo there simply is no right or wrong way. Witten chose “co-feef”, giving it what she called a “little French twist”. A Buzzfeed poll showed most pronounced it “cov-fee-fee”, followed by “cov-fef-ay” — although another suggestion of “just cough” makes as much sense, given it’s a nonsensical jumble of letters that’s the result of fumbling fingers.
Indeed, given Trump’s own style of speech makes “big league” sound like “bigly”, there’s no telling how “covfefe’s” creator might choose to speak it aloud.