Of the thousands of languages used in the world today, only a handful are used online. Just over half of all web pages are in English, a proportion which has grown over the past year. The second most-used language online is German, with a meagre 6.2% share. You have to get to 18th place before you find a Nordic language (Swedish, by far the most widely spoken Nordic language with around 8.7 million native speakers, has a 0.5% share).
This is perhaps surprising given the overall number of Swedish speakers on a global scale. Hindi for example, with its 295 million native speakers, ranks 39th with a 0.1% share. It’s fair to say that Swedish punches well above its weight, as do Danish, Norwegian and Finnish, all of which rank significantly higher than Hindi in terms of usage online.
These statistics give us some idea that language use online does not necessarily reflect actual language use in the real world. There are many factors that play into this: levels of economic development in various countries, access to the internet and technology more widely, and attitudes to language, to name but a few.
But what about the situation in the Nordic region as a whole? While the “big” languages mentioned above are used proportionally more online than in the real world, what about smaller Nordic languages like Icelandic, Faroese, Greenlandic and the Sámi dialects?
In this two-part article, we’re going to focus on one of these languages in particular: Icelandic. It’s spoken by around 340,000 people, a drop in the ocean in terms of world population, but actually one of the more widely spoken languages in the grand scheme of things.
The case of Icelandic is fairly well documented, and Icelanders are aware of the situation they face in terms of outside pressure from English, and are taking action to make sure their language blossoms in the digital era. However, the language still faces immense challenges and obstacles which are not easily overcome.
Shrinking spheres of influence
The phenomenon by which languages with a solid footing in the real world are neglected online is known as digital minoritisation. In the case of Icelandic, it’s a majority language in the real world: despite its small number of speakers, it’s the main language of communication and business in Iceland and the vast majority of Icelanders speak it natively.
Online, however, it could be argued that Icelandic is a minority language. Icelanders are forced to use English online for many things, for example looking up information on Wikipedia, shopping online or when watching foreign media. Icelanders are diligent about using Icelandic online for interpersonal communication and most of them post on their social media accounts in their native language. Outside of this though, Icelanders are forced to use a foreign language (namely English) to access the material they’re looking for.
Digital minoritisation is part of larger trend known as domain loss that has affected various languages at different points in time. This is where speakers stop using one language within a certain field, e.g. at work, and start using another. A common example of this is the use of English in business in Scandinavia. Many larger Scandinavian companies with an international presence use English as their official company language, aware that limiting their potential pool of candidate employees to speakers of the Nordic languages may impede their ability to succeed globally.
This situation is analogous to the case of Icelandic online. Aware that the vast majority of information online is in English, it’s only natural that Icelanders look up information on the English-language version of Wikipedia first, instead of trying the Icelandic-language version (especially if the topic doesn’t relate to Iceland). Iceland also has a small media and creative sector compared to other countries (in absolute terms at least – relatively, it punches well above its weight), meaning Icelanders are pushed to consume music, films and TV programmes from abroad, most of which are inevitably in English.
Icelandic before the digital era
Within a European context, Icelandic is a unique language in that it is the sole official language of a nation-state whose population is roughly equivalent to that of the English city of Leicester. The next smallest European nation-state in a similar position is Estonia, with its 1.1 million Estonian speakers.
Historically, the unique status of Icelandic was guaranteed by the island’s geographical location. Cut off from the rest of Europe, Icelanders were free to use their language without outside interference, despite being colonial subjects of Norway and later Denmark. Foreign influence was relatively limited, peaking in the 17th century with the import of a large number of Danish loanwords, the majority of which were later eradicated by purists.
With the rise of nationalism, which took off in Iceland in earnest in the second half of the 19th century (somewhat later than the rest of Europe), Icelandic’s status as a national language was crystallised and formalised. Eventually, Icelanders gained their political independence in 1944, but culturally, the tide was starting to turn.
British and American troops were stationed in Iceland throughout the second world war, bringing Icelanders into intimate contact with a foreign culture for the first time. The Americans were regarded more fondly and their cultural influence was more enduring than that of the Brits. This explains the very visible American influence in Iceland compared to the rest of the Nordic countries that lasts to this day.
Before the advent of the internet, the linguistic authorities in Iceland were able to keep American cultural influence in check. Foreign films and TV shows were meticulously given Icelandic titles and subtitled prior to being shown in cinemas or broadcast (e.g. Star Wars is called Stjörnustríð), imported goods were repackaged and new terms were created for all the technological innovations of the era. This meant that foreign influence on Icelandic was relatively limited, and the public at large were not exposed to a great deal of English in their everyday lives.
In part 2 of the this article, we’ll look at the current situation of Icelandic in a digital context and what actions the Icelandic government is taking to secure the language’s future.