Iceland’s ancient language is under threat: as we live more and more of our lives online, Icelandic, and thousands of other languages, is at risk of digital extinction.  

But the Icelandic government wants to teach Big Tech to speak Icelandic, and they’ve got a plan to do it. The government has spent over $20 million on an enormous database for the Icelandic language, provided free to tech companies, in order to try and convince them to include Icelandic in their products. Currently, Siri and Alexa do not speak Icelandic, as it is just as expensive to program them to speak Icelandic as it is to speak English – but only 320,000 people speak Icelandic. 

There are also planning committees in Iceland, whose aim is to create new Icelandic words to replace foreign loan words, particularly those pertaining to contemporary topics such as medical terminology and artificial intelligence. 

For example, to create the Icelandic word for computer, tölva, researchers combined the Viking words tala (number) and völva (prophetess). 

The Icelandic language is very ancient. In its present-day iteration, it is almost unchanged from the language of the Icelandic sagas, written over a thousand years ago. But most young people in Iceland speak English, which they learnt at school, and over the internet, an all pervasive entity that makes speaking Icelandic less and less necessary in a globalised world. 

However, the internet can also be used as a safe space for endangered languages, providing a platform for them to be documented and preserved. Over half of the world’s 7000 languages are at risk of extinction, and each of them contains vital pieces of cultural knowledge: details of specific plants, animals, natural remedies, that would all die along with the language if it weren’t looked after.

Thanks to the early intervention of the government and planning committees, the future of Iceland isn’t looking too dark. In fact, one could say it is sauðljóst: bright enough to see a sheep from a few yards away.

Originally created and posted by Quartz.

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