Technology 3 min read

Why AI has Decided that Icelandic Language is Obsolete

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, Iceland | Adellyne |

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, Iceland | Adellyne |

The Icelandic language, isolated as it is, remained almost the same for several centuries. Known to be complex and difficult to learn, Icelandic is now in danger of dying out because digital technologies are increasingly tailored towards the language of business: English.

English (or, “Gloabalish”) now seems to be a global language, so much so that it competes with foreign languages in their respective homes.

Officially the third largest spoken language by the number of native speakers (375 million), English is spoken by 1.5 billion people worldwide, and it’s the lingua franca of the Internet by the number of users and content (about 55% of online content is in English).

55 percent of online content is written in English.Click To Tweet

As artificial intelligence takes the reins of more and more Internet queries, data collection and analysis, and learns the subtleties of spoken languages like English, less widely used languages like Icelandic might be neglected.

The Icelandic Language is Dying out

In the case of the Icelandic language, the stakes are at a fever pitch.

According to a report by the Associated Press, linguistic experts fear that the Icelandic language is threatened with extinction because of the widespread use of English in new technologies and the country’s reliance on English-speaking mass tourism.

Spoken by fewer than 400,000 people on an island the size of Kentucky (known for its unforgiving cold), the Icelandic language has remained isolated from the rest of the world.

Descendant of Old Norse culture imported to the island eleven centuries ago by Norsemen, Icelandic has retained all of its uniqueness and complexity.

Here are two examples of peculiar words that have no proper equivalent in English or perhaps any other language:

  1. Gluggaveður, literally “window-weather”, means when you are inside and the weather looks great through the window, but it’s actually freezing if you step outside without a jacket!
  2. Sólarfrí literally means “sun-vacation”, and it’s posted on office buildings to let it known that “the staff got an unexpected day or afternoon off to enjoy good weather.”

These two words and the whole Icelandic vocabulary are unintelligible to most digital voice-controlled devices, apps, and software.

The younger generation of Icelanders speak more and more English and less and less of their native language. This could be chalked up to most TV shows, entertainment and modern technologies that are not tailored to or trained in Icelandic, in most cases.

Striking the Right Balance

Icelandic being one of the least-supported languages digitally, one of the practical steps considered is, according to Iceland’s Ministry of Education, the allocation of about $8.8 million USD to fund an open-access Icelandic database to facilitate the work of tech developers and make Icelandic as a language option.

There are over 7,000 languages in the world. This diversity of languages, cultures, and therefore thoughts, is a healthy sign.

A world with a monoculture and a single language, in addition to being inconceivable, would most likely be exposed to the same negative evolutionary traits that arise from inbreeding.

The challenge for national languages is to strike a balance between using English for international business and as an instrument for progress, while still retaining the unique elements of one’s own culture.

Some countries have done just that and demonstrated that ability to maintain a scientific/cultural equilibrium; such is the case of Japan and South Korea.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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