ULG's Language Services Blog

New Tech and the Demise of Icelandic




The Icelandic language is disappearing. The culprit? Artificial Intelligence.

Well, at least that’s part of the problem. The Associated Press reports that English tourism and foreign labor has also played a role in the language’s demise, but a lack of technological support for Icelandic in voice-activated gadgets is a factor, too.

There are around 330,000 native speakers of Icelandic, but with the advent of AI, experts believe the language could be on its last leg.
To many, the Icelandic language preserves the country’s heritage and culture, and represents a centuries-old vestige of Iceland’s rich history. But as English continues to reign supreme as the lingua franca of up-and-coming devices, the Norse vernacular may disappear.

Facing Extinction?

The AP reported a lack of Icelandic on voice assistants and other tech last month, but the issue has been a talking point before. In 2012, a study from the University of Manchester posited that a number of European languages “faced extinction” due to a lack of “digital assistance.”

Icelandic language was one of the most at-risk languages, according to the study.

These reports say that if applications like Siri, Alexa, or GPS apps don’t support Icelandic, its reach will continue to shrink, meaning less people will be inclined to speak or learn the language, since the technological support isn’t there.

“The lack of available software for the high-risk languages means that without drastic action, they will be unable to survive in today’s digital world,” a statement regarding the study says.

Iceland is a geographically isolated country, but the Internet’s global reach has brought new cultural phenomena and language trends to the island nation.

An English-Speaking Internet

The Internet isn’t a paragon of linguistic diversity. Many have criticized this lack of cultural variety as a reason for the disappearance of ancient or little-known languages.

In 2015, Wired reported that more than half of the world’s most popular websites are presented in English. The same article cites a statistic from the United Nations that states only 500 languages can be found online. There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken around the world.

Quartz reported last month that the failure to realize international Internet domains has only exacerbated the problem of an insular, English-speaking web. At the same time, some are trying to leverage technology to revive dying languages.

Icelandic Language As An Identity

For Icelanders, their language is more than just a way to communicate; it’s also a point of pride that provides the country’s citizens with a sense of belonging.

According to a PRI story published in 2015, a survey found that those who considered themselves Icelandic did so because they spoke the language. On the other hand, people from Slovakia (the survey was conducted by an Icelandic transplant from Slovakia) identified as Slovakian because that’s where they were born, or where their parents were from.

This sentiment goes to show that the language we speak can play a big role in how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Losing a language not only strips a region of its heritage, but part of its identity, too.



Topics: Translation, Service