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English puts Icelandic language at risk

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees “Solarfri” posted, he or she needs no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means “when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather.”

The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Artic.

Hundslappadrifa, for example, means “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind.”

But the revered 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.

Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir told The Associated Press that Iceland must take steps to protect its language. She is particularly concerned that programs be developed so the language can be easily used in digital technology.

“Otherwise, Icelandic will end in the Latin bin,” she warned.

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.

A number of factors combine to make the future of the Icelandic language uncertain. Tourism has exploded in recent years 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, experts say.

“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,” said Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland.