Icelandic language battles threat of 'digital extinction'
Iceland’s mother tongue and cultural identity is drowning in an online ocean of English
Unlike most languages, when Icelandic needs a new word it rarely imports one. Instead, enthusiasts coin a new term rooted in the tongue’s ancient Norse past: a neologism that looks, sounds and behaves like Icelandic.
The Icelandic word for computer, for example, is tölva, a marriage of tala, which means number, and völva, prophetess. A web browser is vafri, derived from the verb to wander. Podcast is hlaðvarp, something you “charge” and “throw”.
This makes Icelandic quite special, a language whose complex grammar remains much as it was a millennium ago and whose vocabulary is unadulterated, but which is perfectly comfortable coping with concepts as 21st-century as a touchscreen.
But as old, pure and inventive as it may be, as much as it is key to Icelanders’ sense of national and cultural identity, Icelandic is spoken today by barely 340,000 people - and Siri and Alexa are not among them.
In an age of Facebook, YouTube and Netflix, smartphones, voice recognition and digital personal assistants, the language of the Icelandic sagas – written on calfskin between AD1200 and 1300 – is sinking in an ocean of English.
“It’s called ‘digital minoritisation’,” said Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, a professor of Icelandic language and linguistics at the University of Iceland. “When a majority language in the real world becomes a minority language in the digital world.”
Secondary school teachers already report 15-year-olds holding whole playground conversations in English, and much younger children tell language specialists they “know what the word is” for something they are being shown on the flashcard, but not in Icelandic.
Because young Icelanders in particular now spend such a large part of their lives in an almost entirely English digital world, said Eiríkur, they are no longer getting the input they need to build a strong base in the grammar and vocabulary of their native tongue. “We may actually be seeing a generation growing up without a proper mother tongue,” he said.
The language has survived major foreign inputs in the past, under Danish rule for example. The impact of English, however, “is unique in scale of impact, intensity of contact, speed of change”, Eiríkur said. “Smartphones didn’t exist 10 years ago. Today almost everyone is in almost full-time contact with English.”
The range and volume of English readily accessible to Icelanders has expanded exponentially, most of it more relevant and more engrossing than ever before, said Iris Edda Nowenstein, a PhD student working with Eiríkur on an exhaustive three-year study of the impact of digital language contact on 5,000 people.
“Once, outside school you’d do sport, learn an instrument, read, watch the same TV, play the same computer games,” she said. “Now on phones, tablets, computers, TVs, there are countless games, films, series, videos, songs. You converse with Google Home or Alexa. All in English.”
English may not be the enemy – in principle, multilingualism is obviously a good thing – but its sheer weight and variety online are overwhelming, Nowenstein said. Nor is Icelandic alone, according to research.
Icelandic’s relatively few speakers are also unusually proficient in English and enthusiastic early adopters of new technology. “The obvious worry is that young people will start to say: ‘Okay, so we can’t use this language abroad. If we’re not using it much in Iceland either, then what’s the point?” Rögnvaldsson asked.
In what amounts to a perfect storm for such a small language, it is also under siege in the real world. The wild north Atlantic island welcomed almost two million foreign visitors last year, four times the 2008 figure, and immigrants now make up 10% of the population, a five-fold increase in two decades.
Mostly EU workers on short-term contracts in fish-processing or tourism, new residents rarely need to master Icelandic, with its three genders, four cases and six verb forms. In the bars, restaurants and shops of downtown Reykjavík, it can be a struggle for locals to get served in their native language.
Online, however, is the biggest concern. Apart from Google – which, mainly because it has an Icelandic engineer, has added Icelandic speech recognition to its Android mobile operating system – the internet giants have no interest in offering Icelandic options for a population the size of Cardiff’s.
“For them, it costs the same to digitally support Icelandic as it does to digitally support French,” Eiríkur said. “Apple, Amazon … If they look at their spreadsheets, they’ll never do it. You can’t make a business case.”
Where Icelandic versions do exist, said Nowenstein, they are not perfect. “You can switch Facebook to Icelandic, but it’s not good at dealing with cases,” she said. “So people get fed up with seeing their names in the wrong grammatical form, and switch back to English.”
Max Naylor, a UK academic also involved in the study, said he had emailed and written to Apple several times but had never received a reply. “We’re not expecting a fully-functioning operating system, but the hope is that they will at least open themselves up to collaboration,” he said.
The Icelandic government is setting aside 450m krónur (£3.1m) a year over the next five years for a language technology fund it hopes will produce open-source materials developers could use, but the challenge – from apps and voice-activated fridges to social media and self-driving cars – is immense.
Icelandic has survived almost unscathed for well over 1,000 years, and few experts worry it will die in the very near future. “It remains the majority, official language of a nation state, of education and government,” Nowenstein said.
“But the concern is that it becomes obsolete in more and more domains, its use restricted, so it’s second best in whole areas of people’s lives. Then you worry about Icelanders understanding much less, for example, of their cultural heritage.”
In the meantime, Naylor said, literacy rates among Icelandic children are falling as their vocabulary shrinks. “You could soon have a situation where Icelanders will be native in neither Icelandic or English,” he said. “When identity is so tied up with language … it’s hard to know what that will mean.”
This article was amended on 27 February 2018 to reflect the fact that Icelandic people are typically referred to by their first name on second mention.