The 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 in an increasingly globalized world, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue.
Teachers are already sensing a change among students in the scope of their Icelandic vocabulary and reading comprehension.
Anna Jonsdottir, a teaching consultant, said she often hears teenagers speak English among themselves when she visits schools in Reykjavik, the capital.
She said 15-year-old students are no longer assigned a volume from the Sagas of Icelanders, the medieval literature chronicling the early settlers of Iceland. Icelanders have long prided themselves of being able to fluently read the epic tales originally penned on calfskin.
Most high schools are also waiting until senior year to read author Halldor Laxness, the 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, who rests in a small cemetery near his farm in West Iceland.
A number of factors combine to make the future of the Icelandic 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, experts say.
The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic.
Icelandic ranks among the weakest and least-supported language 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 1 billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.