Rescuing Icelandic

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Essay in Wall Street Journal: 

"Computers Speaking Icelandic Could Save the Language From ‘Stafrænn Dauði’ (That’s Icelandic for ‘Digital Death’):  To counter the dominance of English in technology and media, Iceland is teaching apps and devices to speak its native language."  By Egill Bjarnason (May 20, 2021).

This is such a fascinating article, and one that points to a gigantic problem of language survival for many of the world's roughly 7,000 remaining tongues, that I could easily quote the entire piece.  I will resist that temptation, but will still offer generous chunks of it.  One part of the story that I cannot forgo is the saga of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) and his epic linguistic and literary legacy.

Telma Brigisdottir, a middle-school teacher in suburban Iceland, arrived at her classroom on a recent morning in March eager to introduce a new assignment. Dressed in a pink hoodie, she told her students: Turn on your iPad, log into the website Samromur, and read aloud the text that appears on screen. Do this sentence after sentence after sentence, she instructed, and something remarkable will happen. The computer will learn to reply in Icelandic. Eventually.

The task sounded easy, even fun for a 10-year-old, but by reading aloud her students were performing a crucial historical rescue mission. They were saving Icelandic, a dialect of Old Norse, from “digital death.”

Many of Ms. Brigisdottir’s students dove into the lesson, continuing after school and through playtime. All together, they logged 130,000 sentences into a database for speech-controlled technology, the technology that allows people to change channels on their television, for instance, without digging up the remote control, or to create automatic closed captioning for the deaf, or to direct their GPS without taking their hands off the wheel.

The students are both part of the solution and proof of the need for it: They’ve grown up online, using English, not Icelandic, to engage with technology and online entertainment. They begin using smartphones at an ever younger age and consume more media than the generations before them. “Netflix is in English, computer games are in English, viral videos are in English—everything that is fun, in their world, is in English,” Ms. Brigisdottir explains. “Knowing Icelandic has no use for them in these settings.”

The linguistic term is “digital minoritization,” and in Iceland it is cause for great concern. Despite or because of its remoteness, the country ranks first on the U.N. index of information technology use, with 99% of the population on the internet. The rising use of voice-controlled devices has been a special cause for alarm: Studies show that the interactive use of English tends to have far greater influence than passive exposure. Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated mobile assistants like Siri and Alexa would be yet another lost field. If the language option arrives long after the technology itself, young people might not make the switch given their advanced English skills. “The current moment is critical,“ said Johanna Gudmundsdottir, who leads the research center Almannaromur, with a team of 60 experts working on digital solutions.

Ms. Brigisdottir, a teacher who favors a gentle nudge to steer behavior, has to remind her class “about five to 10 times a day” that Icelandic is supposed to be spoken in school. To show students what’s at stake, she takes the class on a field trip to see a round outdoor pool, set some 50 miles outside of Reykjavik, on a property once owned by the 13th-century writer Snorri Sturluson.

Sturluson is to Iceland what Aristotle is to Greece and Dante to Italy: an admired thinker and a pioneer of the written word. Born around 1178 in an Iceland ruled largely by chieftains, he was raised as a foster child by the richest man in the country and received an excellent education. He was a lawyer and a poet, a deeply flawed and ambitious character whose machinations made him one of the leaders of Iceland.

Luckily for posterity, he used his position to write three chronicles in the Norse language: the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and Egil’s Saga. These books appeared at a time when Scandinavian kings increasingly turned to writers from southern Europe to document their achievements in Latin. Sturluson wrested back control of the praise business, and Norse soon became the language of choice for Scandinavian texts.

At his poolside villa, Sturluson wrote one of the most important books in European history: the Prose Edda, the fullest collection we have of Norse mythology. Iceland’s conversion to Christianity around 1000 AD marked the decline of the Norse gods; worshiping Thor, Odin and the rest was only allowed in secret. Their stories had been passed down as an oral tradition, but Sturluson put them all together and gave them a narrative arc. “For someone raised in a society of oral traditions,” says medieval scholar Gisli Sigurdsson, “Snorri took an extraordinary leap and basically invented the literary format as we know it.”

In the Scandinavian countries, Old Norse evolved into local vernacular languages over the centuries. Iceland was long controlled by Denmark, but in the 19th century, Icelandic independence movements fought to revive Icelandic as the common tongue, central to the claim that Icelanders were a nation.

Today, when Icelandic students are shown medieval manuscripts and can read the first lines with only modest guesswork, they appear steinhissa—the word for “astounded,” used in a folktale to describe the moment when a troll is turned to stone by the rays of the sun. By contrast, when modern English speakers are shown a text in early middle English, they are baffled: “An preost wes on leoden; Layamon wes ihoten. / He wes Leouenaðes sone; liðe him beo Drihten,” run the first lines of the 12th-century poem “Layamon’s Brut.”

The language remains the bedrock of Iceland’s national identity. The majority of Icelanders have good English skills, but no one is calling for Icelandic to be put aside for the sake of efficiency. Surveys show that even among young people, an Iceland without the Icelandic language is impossible to fathom. And in the end, the fight for a digital future will eventually come down not to the technology itself but to its users.

With a population of only a little over 350,000 and finding itself in a cold, remote location, if Iceland can forestall language extinction, it will serve as a beacon for many other languages that seem to be facing the sad fate of gradually dying out.  All it takes is determination and ingenuity — and love of one's mother tongue.

Will Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Cantonese, Hakka, Sichuanese, and dozens of other Sinitic languages and topolects, not to mention non-Sinitic languages such a Tibetan and Uyghur, still exist at the end of the 21st century?


Selected readings

A little bit of Icelandia:

The following is just a small sampling of the scores of posts that touch upon languages and topolects that are dying out in China.

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Twill said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 11:17 am

    These stories naturally always strike an optimistic note, but when you see lines like the teacher reprimanding students for speaking English in school, it's hard to see anything other than entropy despite best efforts. I don't see how any meaningful hope could be held out so long as children are so totally immersed in Anglophone culture, and piecemeal and token efforts as these surely aren't moving the needle if children are still interacting with the world principally in English.

  2. Garrett Wollman said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 11:36 am

    Somewhat amused by the WSJ's steadfast editorial adherence to use of English honorifics even for people from a culture that almost exclusively uses patronymics, not family names.

  3. The Dark Avenger said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 11:57 am

    Shanghaese was my mother’s first language, but if fear not for it, we’re a stubborn bunch.

  4. KevinM said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 2:15 pm

    So the computer will recognize 2d-generation printer technology as dotmatrixdottir.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 2:22 pm

    Well, I do not doubt that your amusement is justified, Garrett, but I am delighted to see that the Wall Street Journal managed to print "Stafrænn Dauði" — as discussed in another thread, the New York Times may well have found this an impossible challenge …

  6. Scott Mauldin said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 3:39 pm

    This is more evidence for my hypothesis that digitization will have a kind of hard binary effect on world languages: 1) those that are large enough to maintain a digital/vocal corpus for translation and interoperability with other world languages will be preserved and grow at the expense of 2) those languages that are not large enough or do not have sufficiently technically endowed populations to create the aforementioned corpus. Local languages (e.g. Maasai will head toward extinction as all its speakers will learn Swahili for their Netflix etc.).

    Icelandic seems like it will escape via the sheer tech-saviness of its population. I would imagine that the growth rate of a language over the next century is proportional to [number of speakers]x[some metric of average tech saviness].

  7. Jim Breen said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 3:45 pm

    I gritted my teeth when I saw "Icelandic, a dialect of Old Norse".

  8. Scott Mauldin said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 3:49 pm

    @Jim Breen
    Likewise, but what can you do against an influential publication written in a dialect of Proto-Germanic?

  9. Ouen said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 8:34 pm

    It looks like the side of public opinion in Iceland is clearly in favour of protecting Icelandic. In Taiwan whenever I see an article or post about calls to protect taiwanese most of the commenters seem to be against allocating resources to preserving Taiwanese. So many people comment saying children should focus on English and mandarin. The youngest generation of my boyfriend's family speak no taiwanese the two oldest generations speak almost only Taiwanese, it's fascinating to me that his niece and his ama are every bit as 雞同鴨講 as I am with ama

  10. Scott P. said,

    May 22, 2021 @ 1:54 am

    The computer will learn to reply in Icelandic. Eventually.

    The sum of the harmonic series will surpass 100. Eventually.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    May 22, 2021 @ 5:11 am

    OT, but related — « I gritted my teeth when I saw "Icelandic, a dialect of Old Norse" ». I am reasonably confident that there is general agreement here about the difference between a dialect and a topolect, but I needed a ****lect word this morning which I could not bring to mind. What is the preferred name for a ****lect that is primarily defined by age group and/or generation ?

  12. David W said,

    May 22, 2021 @ 6:31 am


  13. Philip Taylor said,

    May 22, 2021 @ 6:47 am

    Perfect. Thank you David.

  14. Chau said,

    May 26, 2021 @ 11:46 pm

    @Ouen: "as I am with ama"

    Thank you for bringing up the Taiwanese word ama (a-má) 'grandmother', one of many terms that link up Icelandic and Taiwanese. In southern areas of Taiwan such as Sin-iânn 新營 near Tainan, the term is pronounced am-má. The latter is uncannily similar to Icelandic amma 'grandmother'.

    Icelandic amma is inherited from Old Norse (ON). It occurs in ON poems but rarely in the Sagas, the latter use föður-móðir 'father's mother' and móður-móðir 'mother's mother'. Taiwanese a-má / am-má finds no cognates in Mandarin.

    Tw a-má / am-má belongs to a subset of Taiwanese vocabulary pertaining to terms of *female* relatives, all of which curiously show close resemblance to their counterparts in Old Norse. In the following comparison of Taiwanese and Old Norse words, the colon sign (:) reads "corresponds to".

    (1) bó 'mother' : ON móðir Id. – Tw bó is the southern Taiwanese pronunciation of 母 'mother' and may be viewed as a denasalized form of mó(-ðir); in Taipei, it is pronounced bú (Cf. German Mutter).
    (2) a-má / am-má 'grandmother' : ON amma Id.
    (3) chí 姊 'older sister' : ON dís 'sister' – Taiwanese lacks the d sound, di- from foreign loans is usually palatalized to [ʤi], written in POJ as chi.
    (4) mōe / moāi 妹 'younger sister' : ON mœr / mey 'maid, girl, virgin'.
    (5) khane / khan-ne 'wife' : ON kona 'woman, wife' (> Danish kona 'wife'). Tw khane / khan-ne has no cognates in Mandarin (hence, no Sinograph), but Japanese kanai (かない 家内) 'wife' may be related to it. In Germanic, the initial k- is aspirated; the Taiwanese kh- also indicates aspirated k-.

  15. KeithB said,

    May 27, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    Was Icelandic actively suppressed like First Nation languages in the US?

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    May 27, 2021 @ 5:54 pm

    No, although I believe the Danish Government did try to make Danish the official language of Iceland, when they ruled the island. They had more success (unfortunately) with suppressing Greenlandic languages.

  17. PB said,

    May 27, 2021 @ 6:02 pm

    @KeithB: No, never. At least according to German-language Wikipedia, Denmark never tried to "Danify" Iceland; quite the contrary, there were royal rescripts acknowledging Icelandic, such as in 1743 regarding the schools and in 1751 regarding bilingual law texts. – And I agree with Garrett Wollman. Snorri Sturluson as well as Telma are properly referred to by their given names, not their patronym. *AND* I'm pretty sure that "Brigisdottir" must be wrong, not just the spelling of "dóttir", because I have never heard of an Icelandic name "Brigir", it must be "Birgisdóttir" – daughter of Birgir. Most of the few web search result for "Brigisdottir" refer to that article.

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