Monday, April 24, 2017

Icelandic Is At Risk Of Becoming An Extinct Language — And Technology May Be To Blame

Via Business Insider:

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.

She is not the country’s first president to champion a proactive stance to preserving the Icelandic language. In the 19th century, when the island nation belonged to Denmark, Icelandic vocabulary and syntax were heavily influenced by Danish.

Since Iceland became fully independent in 1944, both presidents and other independence movements have seen language as key to preserving the national identity.

But now, worries keep mounting for this very particular Viking language.

"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", said Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland to AP.

Rognvaldsson has conducted the largest study to date looking into the use of Icelandic language, with 5.000 respondents.

"Preliminary studies suggest children at their first-language acquisition are increasingly not exposed to enough Icelandic to foster a strong base for later years", he said.

Here are the main indicators of the decline of the Icelandic language, according to AP:

1. Deteriorating Icelandic skills, starting in school

“Teachers are already sensing a change among students in the scope of their Icelandic vocabulary and reading comprehension”, notes Bjarnason.Teachers are even hearing English being spoken among students, according to a local teacher.

Moreover, most students are no longer assigned the Saga of Icelanders, medieval literature that chronicles the early settling of Iceland. It’s been a standard coming-of-age rite for teenagers to be able to fluently read these epic tales, originally written on calfskin.

2. The dark side of tourism

In the past years, tourism has boomed and become the country’s single biggest employer. According to analysts at Arion Bank, one in two new jobs in the sector is being filled by foreign labor, which indicates that Icelandic is diminishing in importance.

And unfortunately there really aren't that many expats who would be ready to learn Icelandic.

3. Digital technologies and voice-controlled devices

Icelandic is among the least-supported languages in terms of digital technologies (along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian and Maltese), according to a recent report assessing 30 European languages.

Asgeir Jonsson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland, says that this accentuates brain drain in the country. He sees the problem compounded by new voice-recognition devices that do not understand Icelandic, because it's too complicated.

"Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field".

It would cost about 1 billion Icelandic krona, or almost $9 million, to fund an open-access database that could get Icelandic accepted as a language option, according to Iceland's Ministry of Education.

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