“Coffee and kleina,” reads a large sign at a roadside coffee shop by one of the main roads in Reykjavik. Not so many years ago, such a billboard would simply have read: “Kaffi og kleina” – in the language of the Vikings, the official language of Iceland.
It is a privilege of the few to be able to read and write Icelandic, a language understood by only around 400,000 people worldwide. Icelandic, in which the historic Sagas were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, has changed so little since then on our small and isolated island, that we can still more or less read them as they were first written.
But Iceland is not so isolated anymore, and there are signs its language is facing challenges never seen before. Following the economic crash of 2008, and the subsequent collapse of the Icelandic currency (making Iceland a much cheaper destination than before), tourism has emerged as the largest industry in Iceland, with 2.5 million tourists expected to visit a country of 350,000 people this year alone.
And everyone is catering to the tourists in English, of course. At restaurants and coffee shops, people are frequently greeted in English rather than Icelandic, and often Icelandic will get you nowhere if you want to order food or drink. Companies use English names or are rebranding themselves in English. The importance of tourists to the economy is rapidly making English not only a second language in the service industry, but almost the first language. (The irony of this article being written in English is certainly not lost on me.)
There are other warning signs. Icelanders have always been very proud of their literary heritage, boasting that we write and read a lot of books. However, Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010.
Read more: The Guardian
The people of Iceland, settled by Norsemen over 1,100 years ago, have developed a unique dialect based on Old Norse.
Having preserved many ancient elements that are now lost to the rest of the Nordics, Icelandic (like the Sami language in northern Scandinavia) is distinct also because of its inseparable bond with life at the edge of the Arctic. Hundslappadrifa, for example, means “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind,” notes Egill Bjarnason at Associated Press.
But as the language is spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in an increasingly globalized world, many linguistics experts have started to wonder if Icelandic can survive the widespread use of English, which is “boosted by mass tourism and voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue,” says Bjarnason.
Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir told The Associated Press that Icelanders must take serious steps to protect its language.
“Otherwise, Icelandic will end in the Latin bin,” she warned.
Read more: Business Insider
When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees “Solarfri” posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means “when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather.”
The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Artic.
Hundslappadrifa, for example, means “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind.”
But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both for mass tourism and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.
Linguistics experts, studying the future of a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in an increasingly globalized world, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue.
Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir told The Associated Press that Iceland must take steps to protect its language. She is particularly concerned that programs be developed so the language can be easily used in digital technology.
Read more: Phys.org