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ÍSLENSKU!

Iceland’s battle against digital extinction

By Caitlin Hu

Globalization is key to Iceland’s economic survival (paywall)—but it’s killing its language.

For centuries, the Icelandic language has held off influences from foreign lingua franca like Danish and English. But today, there is a new threat: technologies that can only be operated in foreign languages, even at home. Apple’s voice assistant,Siri, for example, does not understand Icelandic (although Google Translate does, thanks to an Icelandic engineer who worked at the California-based company, according to legend).

Half of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing within this century. Like most nations whose languages face digital extinction, Icelanders are already fluent in English—a necessity for engaging with the rest of the world and its flood of tourists who visit the island each year. But as a matter of national sovereignty, the Icelandic government considers its native language as important as its roads.

The tiny country has a three-prong plan to save its language. By law, Icelandic must be taught in schools, and new citizens must pass a fluency test. The country’s Language Planning Department creates Icelandic words for new and foreign terms, with the aim of rendering borrowed words unnecessary. And the state plans to spend the equivalent of $20 million (link in Icelandic) over the next five years to support public and private initiatives to build Icelandic-language technologies.

Quartz took a road-trip around Iceland to learn more about the battle for its linguistic future. We met the people who invent new words, and a few teenagers who spend a lot of their free time online using English.

Quartz News is a weekly series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

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