Every morning, Iceland’s language planners begin their day by taking off their shoes at the communal shoe rack in their office and slipping into pairs of soft clogs. As tourists begin to fill the alleyways of downtown Reykjavik with a faint babble of English, French, Chinese, and Italian, the language planners shuffle quietly back into their fight to save the Icelandic language from extinction.
The Language Planning Department, a small government-funded office of linguists with a rotating cast of subject experts is in charge of integrating new and foreign concepts into the millennia-old Icelandic language. For decades, the department and its predecessors have invented new Icelandic words to keep up with civilizational advances abroad, from the invention of the computer (tolva) to the rise of political correctness (pólitísk rétthugsun).
Only about 320,000 people in the world speak Icelandic. Most are already bi- or trilingual, switching with ease into English or another language when abroad. The language planners’ mission is to ensure that the country’s citizens switch back to Icelandic at home. A vibrant national language, they say, is as vital to Iceland’s sovereignty as the roads that connect its moonscape plains and coastal towns.
More people around the world are literate than ever before in our species’ history—and yet a mass extinction threatens the world’s languages. In a phenomenon known to linguists as “digital death,” 7,000 languages globally are at risk of falling into disuse because they simply are not that useful online. Netflix, for example, does not offer Icelandic subtitles—much less Wolof or Welsh. Wikipedia offers only about 47,000 articles in Icelandic, compared to more than 47 million in English.
Emerging speech recognition technology could narrow the language funnel even further. Voice assistants Cortana, Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant speak only 22 languages in total.
“Many have been concerned for the last 10 or 15 years that we are losing this battle in language technology,” says Johannes Sigtrygsson, a researcher and dictionary specialist at the Language Planning Department. “That English will become the language of these smart things, like Alexa and Google, things that you talk to. If you order them to do something, you will only be able to do it in English!” It’s the prospect of speaking a foreign language to devices in your own kitchen or bedroom that make this linguistic conundrum seem particularly distasteful, his examples suggest. Imagine coming home and having to look up the Martian word for “half-and-half,” because that’s all your supposedly smart refrigerator understands.
And so the language planners, led by linguist Ari Páll Kristinsson, are working furiously to match every English word or concept with an Icelandic one—giving young Icelanders no excuse for depending on loanwords learned online.
A onetime colony of Denmark, the island nation’s organized resistance to linguistic imperialism dates back centuries, and its methods are well-established. For Ari personally, the fight to make technology accessible in Icelandic dates back decades. In a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ari criticized Microsoft for “destroying” Iceland’s language preservation efforts by refusing to translate Windows into Icelandic.
Read more: Quartz