May 3, 2017

Voice-activated refrigerators are destroying the Icelandic language


Ancient Viking iPad, inscribed with sick runes.

With a population of just 322,000, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. They have given the world two great, undying treasures: The Sagas of the Icelanders and Björk. They have no standing army, actually put bankers in jail after the 2008 crisis, and love handball. They are culturally responsible for the greatest quasi-pagan business model of all time.

And sadly, for all this, the gore-spattered thresher of twenty-first century cybernetic capitalism is threatening to annihilate their language.

Egill Bjarnason, writing for the Associated Press, reports that former Icelandic president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir worries that a lack of localized software (particularly mobile and voice-activated software) and increasing economic reliance on the tourism industry are threatening the viability of the Icelandic language. She’s not alone in her anxiety. Teachers, researchers, and members of the Icelandic parliament all express uncertainty over the future of their national language.

So why, exactly, are teenagers no longer required to read portions of the Sagas? Because refrigerators don’t speak Icelandic! And neither does Siri. So why fucking bother?

This, at least, is the explanation of Asgeir Jonsson, a professor of economics, who warns that “not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field.” Which is to say that not enough gizmos and gadgets are capable of recognizing Icelandic, and so it must perish from the face of the earth. Unless, of course, a recently-proposed million-dollar fund for the development of open-source Icelandic-language databases is approved, which might encourage developers to provide localized versions of voice-activated refrigerator technology.

As Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a professor of language at the University of Iceland puts it, “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.”

NB: “Less useful” here means “less capable of communicating with our new and glorious robot overlords, whose gleaming plastic chariots will bear us into a new world and transform us beyond all recognition.” Icelandic is expressive like that.




Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.