Icelandic Language At Risk Of Extinction As Robots And Computers Struggle To Understand It


The majority of the internet is in English, squeezing out other, smaller languages. Photostravellers/Shutterstock

It has weathered the harsh Arctic conditions, war, and religion, but there is one thing the Icelandic language may not be able to survive: the influx of modern technology. Experts have issued a warning that the language of the North Atlantic island is at risk of going extinct, as the booming tourism industry and the proliferation for voice-controlled tech are causing a shift towards speaking English.

The linguistic experts are worried that there is a perfect storm brewing, in which the younger generations are developing a far more restricted vocabulary and losing reading comprehension, as Icelandic society is increasingly relying on English as tourism expands, and technology is dominated by the language. With very specific terms and words, Icelandic is hard to translate, and thus loses representation.


“The less useful Icelandic becomes in people's daily life, the closer we as a nation get to the threshold of giving up its use,” Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland, told Associated Press. “Preliminary studies suggest children at their first-language acquisition are increasingly not exposed to enough Icelandic to foster a strong base for later years.”

The ubiquitous rise of technology is not only threatening Icelandic, but a whole host of other languages worldwide. Between 30 and 50 percent of online content is thought to be in English, while a select few others are also becoming more prevalent in the virtual world, including Russian, Spanish, German, and Arabic.

This means that these few heavyweights dominate the Internet and the online conversations, pushing the smaller languages to the side and squeezing them out. As new terms are invented to describe technological advancements and business, these more common languages have now become the default, meaning that increasingly many conversations regarding such subjects have to be conducted in them, while the smaller languages are being relegated to the homestead and private lives of the speakers.

It is thought that in Europe alone, up to 21 languages are thought to be at risk of digital extinction, and it is predicted to get worse. As technology advances, and the digital realm extends further and further into our lives – both public and private – the bigger languages will continue to push the smaller ones out. One only has to think of products such as the Amazon Echo, or Google Home, to see how English is now also becoming the default in many homes, a decision made by the developers.


Whether or not the digital world is driving the extinction of many languages, or simply reflecting what is happening in the real world, is not entirely clear. But what is obvious is that despite there being some 7,000 languages spoken globally, only a tiny fraction are represented online.  


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