Digital devices snub Icelandic language

By Travis M. Andrews, The Washington Post - April 27, 2017

If you want to change the default language on your iPhone, you have many options to choose from, such as Turkish, Dutch, Catalan and both the Brazilian and Portuguese dialects of Portuguese.

If you speak Icelandic though, you’re out of luck.

The same is true on many computers, particularly voice-activated devices such as televisions, virtual assistants and electronics. Some people believe this – along with the world’s increasing globalization and widespread usage of English – could lessen the use of the Icelandic language, which is spoken by less than half a million people.

The cityscape of Reykjavik is reflected in lake Tjornin in winter. (Getty)
The cityscape of Reykjavik is reflected in lake Tjornin in winter. (Getty)

It wouldn’t be the only language facing this fate.

“Many of the world’s 6,000 languages will not survive in a globalized digital information society,” the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance said in a report stating Icelandic is one of the most endangered languages in the digital age. “It is estimated that at least 2,000 languages are doomed to extinction in the decades ahead.”

“The status of a language depends . . . on the presence of the language in the digital information space and software applications,” the report said.

The use of Icelandic in language technology was “virtually non-existent” in 1999. All that existed in the digital sphere for the language, according to META, was a good spell checker and a weak language synthesizer.

It has gained more of a foothold since then, but the gap between it and other languages leaves much to be desired. As Mashable reported, “Vehicle GPS units stumble over Icelandic names for streets and highways. So-called digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa don’t understand the language.”

Of course, the Icelandic language has done just fine for centuries without digital devices.

The language was originally brought to what is Iceland in the 9th and 10th entries by settlers from western Norway. Given the island country’s remoteness, it “has remained relatively unchanged since the 12th century, and so old Icelandic manuscripts can still be read by today’s Icelanders,” National Geographic reported.

The language is unique, but it also isn’t spoken by many people – the country’s population, after all, is only about 339,000. It isn’t used much outside the country, either. Only about 5,000 Americans speak it, for example.

But there isn’t a particularly compelling reason for companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley, to include the language in its devices.

Former Iceland President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir recently told the Associated Press without this trend changing, “Icelandic will end up in the Latin bin.”

Some have been concerned about that for years. Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland, spoke to the Reykjavík Grapevine in 2013 about the continuing rise of voice-activated technology that doesn’t include Icelandic.

“The more our everyday lives become a field where we can’t use our mother tongue – which is not something happening to an isolated group of people, but all Icelanders – the more danger it is that people give up on the language, thinking: ‘Why bother learning this language, why don’t we just switch over and start using English so we can be competitive in a modern world?'” he said.

Ásgeir Jónsson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland, told the Associated Press that the current trend could lead to a “brain drain” for the country.

“Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field,” he said.

It’s not something native speakers take lightly.

“If we lost the Icelandic language, there would be no Icelandic nation. And if there’s no Icelandic nation, there is no Icelandic sovereignty,” Ari Páll Kristinsson, head of language planning at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, the Icelandic government’s language research agency,” told PRI.

Currently, the small country’s Ministry of Education estimate it would cost 1 billion krona – about $8.8 million – to fund an open-access database that would allow developers to incorporate Icelandic into our digital devices. But time is of the essence.

“If we wait, it may already be too late,” said Svandís Svavarsdóttir, a member of Iceland’s parliament for the Left-Green Movement.