Iceland—an island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic—has a vibrant technology industry and booming tourism. Yet while most of its roughly 370,000 citizens speak English or another second language, its integration with the United States and Europe has put the country’s native tongue, Icelandic, at risk. Today there’s increasing worry that in a few generations, if Icelandic can’t remain the country’s default language in the face of rapid digitalization, the language might face de facto extinction.
Icelandic is dear to Icelanders’ hearts. The country’s government maintains a Language Planning Department that coins Icelandic terms for new ideas, rather than adopting so-called “loanwords” from other languages. A computer, for instance, is a tölva (“number prophetess”), whereas in Spanish it is a computadora. As a result of these efforts, the language remains relatively “pure” in the linguistic sense, and close to its Old Norse roots.
On the initiative of the country’s President, HE Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, and with the help of private industry, Iceland has partnered with OpenAI to use GPT-4 in the preservation effort of the Icelandic language —and to turn a defensive position into an opportunity to innovate.