Iceland’s ancient language is under threat. From the Internet. – In maybe 20 years, nobody will speak Icelandic anymore. The Icelandic government is spending millions of dollars to keep its language alive. Icelandic citizens are updating their vocabulary with new words. – The Icelandic version of mansplaining is hrútskýring. Mr. Explanation: “I know everything.” And the government wants technology to speak Icelandic, too. – You have to be able to speak to your refrigerator. As we live more and more of our lives online, Icelandic, like thousands of other languages, is at risk of digital extinction. Most digital devices only work in a handful of languages. So Iceland’s government is trying to Big Tech to speak Icelandic. I’m Caitlin Hu. This is Quartz. This is Iceland’s language planning department. A small group of scholars who create the words that Icelanders will need to navigate the future. – This is really the battlefield, because if we lose important fields, people start to look at the language as not complete, and it starts to become just a hobby or something then. English loanwords dominate conversations around the world, especially when it comes to fields like finance and technology. To stop Icelanders from depending on English, the language planning department works with dozens of specialized committees to invent terms for everything from medical conditions to foreign foods. – So the words that you should not use these are derived from outside words? Like canvas, capers! Okay. – Not pure enough. Contemporary Icelandic is nearly identical to the language of the Icelandic sagas written more than a thousand years ago. And one way committees create new words is by combining ancient Viking words, such as “völva” meaning prophetess and “tala,” which means number. – From these two words you make the word “tölva” for computer. The campaign to keep Icelandic pure is working. Icelanders do use tölva for computer, along with the Icelandic words for emoji and artificial intelligence. But for a language to thrive in the digital age, machines need to speak it too. Few tech companies are willing to invest in a language spoken by only 320,000 people. So Siri and Alexa, for example, don’t offer an Icelandic option. – The problem here is that it’s nearly as expensive to make it for Icelandic language as for English, so it costs a lot. Iceland’s Ministry of Education has budgeted more than 20 million dollars to create an Icelandic language database. Their goal is to make it free for any company to incorporate Icelandic into their products, anywhere in the world. – The government really made a five year plan, I think, and put rather large funds into this to make this possible for Iceland. So hopefully we are not too late. Icelanders worry that the youngest generation has less and less use for their native language. – So how old are you guys? – Twelve. – You guys speak English? – Yes. – How did you learn English? – School and the Internet. – Watching YouTube. – What are you watching on YouTube? – Minecraft. – I Don’t actually watch YouTube. – I just watch like Netflix, “Friends.” – You watch “Friends” on Netflix? – Yeah. – And it’s all in English? – Yeah. – You can’t watch it in Icelandic? – No. – There’s nothing that exists that’s called “Friends” in Icelandic. – The impact of technology in digital tools sort of cuts both ways. This is Ross Perlin, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a New York City non-profit that documents and describes languages, some so endangered they’re spoken by fewer than a thousand people. – Larger languages are further strengthened by all digital tools that stand behind them. But at the same time, there are spaces online for smaller languages. Almost half of the world’s 7000 languages are at risk of extinction, losing them means losing more than just words. – From a scientific point of view, from a linguistic point of view, just undeniably there is an incredible amount of knowledge about history, the world, ecology, plants, animals, life-saving, critical information that is encoded and is in these languages and can’t, and shouldn’t, be just extracted surgically. Icelandic benefits from a long literary history, and a wealthy national government that considers the construction and maintenance of Icelandic words as important as the construction and maintenance of Icelandic roads. But Icelanders have realized that if they want their language to survive, they have to reach beyond their borders and make sure they’re part of the digital conversation, too.