Digital Linguistic Extinction: The Icelandic Counter-Effort

Photo Credit: Max Hanger

By Drew Frank
Staff Writer

The digital era has been largely successful at facilitating interconnectedness: the ability to send an email or update friends about life with a few mere taps on a keyboard is unprecedented in its reach and its accessibility. But in a near-paradoxical way, the digital era has also had disastrous effects on language diversity. Languages have been gradually becoming extinct for years, but projections indicate that 90% of all languages will go extinct over the next 100 years if current rates of loss persist.

The status quo might suggest that the main languages facing potential extinction are indigenous languages spoken by a mere cluster of individuals, however, studies show that many major languages are also at risk. The Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance reports that 21 major European languages– including Irish, Lithuanian, and Welsh– are indeed at risk of severely diminishing or even going extinct in the next 100 years. Countries are utilizing varied efforts to stave off this potentially culture-erasing effect of online culture, in which a few languages tend to see near-universal presence while others are sidelined entirely. However, one country has engaged with initiatives to preserve its language in the wake of the negative ramifications of the digital environment, using a unique strategy of looking back to the past to preserve its language in the future: Iceland.

The Icelandic language is spoken by approximately 350,000 people, a small proportion of the global population yet nearly the entire population of the country. Most Icelanders learn English as a second language, as Icelandic is spoken very sparsely outside of the nation’s borders. Though this learning of English posed no problems for the Icelandic language for many years, the recent ubiquity of the internet and the subsequent widespread use of YouTube and social media has posed an issue for the language’s continuance. Icelandic has very little optimization on the internet, and what little does exist is often poor and very thinly spread. According to Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, a professor of Icelandic linguistics at the University of Iceland, “It costs the same to digitally support Icelandic as it does to digitally support French.” The potential consumer base for support in Icelandic is far too little for tech companies to pay for it, especially when most Icelanders are also proficient in English. Thus, Iceland has engaged with other methods to domestically preserve its language and its entirely unique structure, as its presence on the internet is likely to remain low.

The Icelandic Language Planning Department, a small yet centrally planned operation, is in charge of the linguistic development of the Icelandic language. Its specific approach to developing and modernizing the language for future generations– in its creation of new words and its promotion of both machine learning and system optimization in Icelandic– can serve as a promising example of linguistic preservation.

Firstly, the Iceland Language Planning Department is unique in its approach to language modernization through its hardline stance against loanwords. Essentially, loanwords are a linguistic categorization for words in a certain language that heavily derive from or are identical to words from other languages. For example, “cafe” is an English word derived from “café” in Spanish. Languages often utilize loanwords due to the fact that a given language may not be able to express the meaning of something on its own, and can thus pull from other languages and integrate new terms to appropriately describe something. In fact, 80% of English words are considered loanwords

With the ubiquitination of the internet and the bilinguality of most Icelanders, many of Iceland’s youth began turning to English loanwords as a means of expressing new terms. In response to this, the Language Planning Department engaged with a new initiative to prevent a need for loanwords in the first place: defining new and emerging terms in Icelandic while utilizing ancient language conventions to decide how the words should be created. This philosophy is called “language purism,” and it has largely governed Icelandic language planning and development.

The Language Planning Department’s initiative to modernize the language by preventing the use of loanwords has resulted in the creation of terms such as “hrutskyring” (meaning mansplaining), “tolva” (computer), and “corpora” (linguistic database). When languages modernize and incorporate new slang terms there’s no need for loanwords to be employed in the first place. In fact, Icelandic as a language has remained largely unchanged since medieval periods and is even still classified as a dialect of Old Norse. A sort of language nationalism movement emerged in Iceland around the 18th century, with the goal of keeping the language “clean.” Because Icelandic is known to be a complicated and very unique language, loanwords can’t be as naturally integrated within it– which thus means that the extreme permeation of loanwords would mean that the language would lose speakers overall. The current ventures of the Language Planning Department are in and of themselves rooted in Icelandic traditionalism, with a continued goal of preserving an ancient language in modern times merely an extension of language nationalism from hundreds of years ago.

The Language Planning Department has also engaged with technological optimization for the Icelandic language as well as machine learning to ensure that the somewhat archaic language can be better utilized in an increasingly technological world. By cooperating with universities and research institutions, headway has been made in this goal. For example, Icelandic students recently created a free app that uses simple flashcards to teach Icelandic vocabulary terms. In fact, the Language Planning Department recently unveiled a partnership with GPT-4 (or ChatGPT) with the goal of not only testing the system’s ability to translate but also its ability to even potentially teach language. If the partnership is successful, and if its human testing is effective in producing accurate translations and generally correct answers in the long run, it could be extremely impactful in not only preserving Icelandic but also other languages facing a possible threat of extinction.

Through a variety of methods– whether it’s embracing the past to create slang or working with AI and university researchers to move Icelandic forward into the modern era– the Language Planning Department has been extremely vigilant in ensuring that Icelandic remains a prominent language domestically as well as a better represented one abroad. Though time will tell how successful these initiatives are, they appear promising– and they may be important to look at in the coming years as other languages begin to deteriorate. 

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