Lonely Planet Writer

Could smartphones and talking fridges wipe out the Icelandic language?

The Icelandic language is at risk, reports Associated Press. Icelandic is a source of pride for many Icelanders, and has barely changed in centuries, meaning its speakers can read Viking sagas in their original language. Yet the prevalence of English, which is a second language for most locals, could threaten its existence.

Icelanders socialise at Sæmundur, a gastropub in Reyjavik
Icelanders enjoying an evening at Sæmundur in Reykjavik Image by Egill Bjarnason/Lonely Planet

Tourism is an increasingly major industry in Iceland, encouraging more use of English. Yet a bigger concern, according to some commentators, is the way that voice-operated technologies rarely support Icelandic. Smartphones, fridges and other devices are increasingly operated by voice, but according to a study by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance, many languages including Icelandic, Latvian, Maltese and Gaelic are largely neglected.

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, in Reykjavík, 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,” he said.

Smart fridges are destroying Icelandic language
Icelandic language under threat from smart fridges. Image by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Rognvaldsson is beginning a three-year study of 5000 people that will be the largest inquiry ever into the use of Icelandic. Economics professor Asgeir Jonsson agreed, telling AP that “not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field”.

Icelandic is unusual not just for its relatively unchanged nature, but also because it retains two letters which no longer exist in most Latin alphabets: þ (a hard ‘th’ as in the English “thorn”) and ð (a softer ‘th’ as in the English “thin”).

Is the smart phone a factor in the declining use of Icelandic?
Will the smart phone lead to the demise of the Icelandic language? Image by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

According to Iceland’s Ministry of Education, it would cost about kr1 billion (US$8.8 million) to create an open-access database that would allow tech developers to adapt Icelandic.