How Do You Modernize a Language?

     At the end of last year, I took a few days off between Christmas and New Year’s to visit the Arctic adventures of Iceland. Between the fjords, hot springs, and lack of sunlight, I also noticed something else that I have not seen in many other places, a predominance of English in a country with a different official language.

     Although obviously Icelandic is the main language of Iceland, there are only around 320,000 speakers of the language, only about 15% of the 2.9 million tourists the country has been seeing annually. In such a well-educated country where the overwhelming majority of adults, particularly in the capital Reykjavik, speak English or other languages, how does a language thrive and survive without becoming endangered in its own country? 

     Icelandic is currently going through what linguists describe as “digital extinction,” in which a majority language in the real world becomes a minority language online. As this Quartz article on a similar topic points out, Wikipedia only has about 46,000 articles in Icelandic, as opposed to the millions of articles in English. With the boom of tourism and academia being conducted mostly in English, Icelandic is quickly becoming an at home language or used in smaller private circles, with English being used for global business or other services involving speakers of other languages. In fact, according to Dr. Jóhannes Sigtryggsson, most of the material in Icelandic universities (92% in the University of Reykjavik) are presented in English.

     However, as we have pointed out recently in our overview of Catalan, there is a point where language becomes a point of pride, and the Icelandic government is currently not only trying to preserve the use of the language, but also futureproof it so that future Icelandic generations can enjoy their country’s ancestral language. 

     On the preservation side, while many major companies such as Amazon and Apple have serious doubts  about ever utilizing Icelandic due to cost, Google and Android platforms have Icelandic options; likewise, as Wikipedia is an open source platform, as the digital extinction issue continues to be seen as a problem, more and more writers will be able to contribute their knowledge in their native tongue.

     As one of the problems of digital extinction is a lack of vocabulary, Icelandic has remained largely unchanged for the past 1,000 years, the government has also set up a Language Development Fund to modernize the language to reflect current trends and technology, while retaining Icelandic roots and as few loanwords as possible. According to Dr. Sigtryggsson,

     “One of the main traits of the unofficial language policy has been to preserve the language as free from loanwords as possible and make new words from indigenous roots. This movement to purge Icelandic of Danish words and make neologisms instead became especially important in the 19th century and 20th century. In many new scientific fields like electrical engineering and computer sciences thousands of words have been coined by special neologism committees. An example, one of many, from the field of electrical engineering is that the English word signal, French signal, German Signal, Italian segnale etc. is called merki in Icelandic and related to the verb merkja ‘denote, mean, label’. Many common words in the language are thus made from indigenous roots, i.e. sjónvarp ‘television, literally ‘sight-throwing’, lýðveldi ‘republic’, literally ‘people-power’. That being said there are of course numerous loanwords in the language both historical and new, e.g. biskup ‘bishop’, kaffi ‘coffee’, sjeik ‘(milk)shake’, blogg ‘blog’.”

     Although it will continue to be a challenge in the future, and almost all languages will inevitably use loanwords, Iceland has in many ways become a pioneer for language and heritage preservation. By modernizing the language, increasing awareness, and creating access with technology, Icelandic may not only survive, but thrive through its digital extinction.