Icelandic Language's Problem: Computers Don't Get It

Language spoken by fewer than 400K has the deck somewhat stacked against it
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 23, 2017 4:58 PM CDT
Icelandic Language's Problem: Computers Don't Get It
In this photo taken Saturday, April 15, 2017, a law book penned on calf-skin in 1363 is displayed at a museum in Reykjavik.   (Egill Bjarnason)

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." 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, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir tells the AP unless Iceland takes steps to protect its language, "Icelandic will end in the Latin bin." A number of factors combine to make the future of the language uncertain.

Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country's single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say one in two new jobs is being filled by foreign labor. That is increasing the use of English as a universal communicator and diminishing the role of Icelandic. The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic. It ranks among the weakest and least-supported languages in terms of digital technology—along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese, and Lithuanian—according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance assessing 30 European languages. Iceland's Ministry of Education estimates about $8.8 million is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option. (Read more Iceland stories.)

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