Icelanders, Microsoft in War of Words


You think the Justice Department has it in for Bill Gates and the marketers of Microsoft Corp.? Try an earful from the Icelandic Language Institute.

“They are nothing less than destroying what has been built up here for ages,” says the institute’s director, Ari Pall Kristinsson.

Iceland, you must first understand, is a tough, proud island nation with language-preservation instincts that put the Academie Francaise to shame. Icelandic may be spoken by fewer than half a million people worldwide, but you should never mistake it for a beleaguered minority tongue.


On the contrary: Up until now, Iceland could boast a minority-language success story extremely unusual in the world. The French may be fighting a losing battle with such creeping barbarisms as le hot dog; Germany may have succumbed to das midlifecrisis.

But centuries of Icelandic isolation and vigilance have preserved a national grammar, vocabulary and spelling that are virtually identical to what the Vikings spoke when they settled this land in the 9th century. Startling though it may sound to an American who has struggled with the Middle English of Chaucer, any Olof Sixpack here can curl up with a saga--written a good century before “The Canterbury Tales"--and understand every word.


Today, however, Iceland’s linguistic patriots say Gates stands poised to lay waste to all they hold dear. The reason, they say, has everything to do with the shamanistic powers computers seem to exercise over the minds of the young and with the marketing strategies of far-away Microsoft.

Microsoft’s sin: It refuses to translate Windows into Icelandic. Spokeswoman Erin Brewer notes that while the company has translated the popular program into “at least 30 languages,” including such rarities as Slovenian and Catalan, it won’t be doing Icelandic.

“We are not localizing Windows 98 into Icelandic due to the size of the market,” she said.

Thus, Iceland’s unique linguistic success may now prove its undoing. For even as its language specialists were defending the purity of their ancestral tongue, they were also making sure every schoolchild here learned English. With the entire population now proficient in English as a second language, Microsoft sees no point in translating Windows into their proud mother tongue; it can just sell them the English version.

“As it looks now, Microsoft is the most powerful company in the world, and it can decide which way the computer world is heading,” Kristinsson says. “This is a disaster. You cannot implement a language policy if the computer talks to you in some other language.”

To appreciate this sad, new Icelandic saga, you have to understand Iceland’s linguistic achievements to date. In the early 1960s, the age of Sputnik and the transistor radio, all of the Nordic countries--Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark--began setting up national language councils. Torrents of new products and ideas were washing out over the globe, and these countries wanted to set national policies for name creation. Iceland established its language council in 1964.


In many places, the English names for new inventions and processes are simply incorporated into the language, as when the P.A. system in a German airport tells you to bring das ticket to dem check-in.

But not in Iceland.

“It seems to us to be a very practical thing, not to absorb foreign words for new objects, but to make new words for things as they come up,” Kristinsson says.

So: Let the research labs of the world come forward with their hyperlinks and motherboards, their fuzzy-set logic and their geosynchronous satellite positioning systems. Up until now, Iceland’s linguists have kept pace with them, creating perfectly pedigreed Icelandic words for anything new.

An example: No self-respecting Icelander would think of arguing that this name game isn’t worth the effort--that, say, AIDS should just be called AIDS, rather than alnaemi, an ancient Icelandic word for “totally vulnerable.”

And thus, a video monitor here is a skjar, which literally means “the amniotic sac of a calf.” Generations ago, when Icelanders lived in sod houses, these membranes were dried and stretched across holes in the earthen walls for windows. Even today, when windows are made of glass, skjar still evokes the idea of a window. And since the centuries-old term had fallen into disuse, it was free for the taking and recycling by computer wonks.

The etymology of the Icelandic word for computer, toelva, is similarly pure: It is a compound word, put together from the Icelandic words meaning “digit” and “prophetess,” alluding to a computer’s great store of knowledge.

“You can say everything in Icelandic,” says Kristjan Arnason, professor of Icelandic at the University of Iceland. “You don’t need English to express yourself.”

Kristinsson adds: “They start teaching computers in kindergarten, and there’s no way they would call these things anything but skjar and toelva. They’re just words, like ‘car,’ or ‘cup.’ You don’t have to be filled with national pride, or anything like that, to use them.”

Not that Icelanders are short of national pride, of course, but it’s really logic and efficiency that fuel their crusade, say the specialists: By constantly making up new indigenous words for global concepts, Iceland has neatly avoided the costly language battles now plaguing other countries in the instant-communication age.

All across industrialized Europe, schools, ministries of culture, writers and other leading linguistic lights are mired in debate over new foreign words and what to do about them. Consider Norway: Its language council made the mistake of letting foreign words worm their way in, and now its language is hopelessly cluttered with interlopers such as “entertainer,” “fight,” “insider” and “champagne.”

No one can agree on how to spell them in Norwegian, or what genders they should be assigned--an important point in the Germanic languages. Norwegian schoolteachers throw up their hands at the thought of teaching spelling anymore.


To the south, Denmark, a country that normally prides itself on unfettered free expression, had to pass a law last year forcing foot-dragging schools to comply with its new official spellings.

How nice to be here in Iceland, above the fray.

“As you know, Norwegian used to be the same language as ours,” Kristinsson says with a smile. “Theirs has changed. Not ours.”

Thus, until recently, Kristinsson was the toast of the international linguistics crowd, holding his head high at professional meetings haunted by doleful Quebeckers, militant Basques and worried Russian delegates seeking ways of defusing the next language-based conflagration on their territory.

But now comes Windows.

Iceland can’t avoid computers; on the contrary, because it is in the middle of the North Atlantic, far from any continent, it needs e-mail and the Internet just to function in modern times. Iceland has worked hard to promote a computer-literate society.

“It’s a very big danger,” says Arnason, “because schoolchildren need computers, and the language of computers soon becomes the language of the kitchen.”

A few years back, Apple Computer Inc. spotted a business opportunity in Iceland’s fear of electronic English infiltration. It translated its software into Icelandic and mounted a marketing campaign on the theme of minority-language protection.

Kristinsson has one of Apple’s promotional posters on his office wall. It features a list of bastard words that an Icelandic kid might pick up via English-language Windows, with the legend, “What kind of child do you want to have?”

Kristinsson heartily approves--but he also knows the placation of cultural preservationists isn’t what sells computers these days.

“I’m afraid the Microsoft systems are overwhelmingly used here,” he says.

Unable to stop the influx of Windows, Iceland’s cultural authorities began petitioning software importers, asking for the right to translate Windows into Icelandic. That proposal went nowhere, Arnason says, because the programs can’t be translated without the translator’s going into the main operating system, something Microsoft won’t allow.

Iceland then offered to pay Microsoft to do the translation itself, but Microsoft refused to quote Iceland a price.

“The Microsoft people say we have to do it, but we’re not allowed to do it,” Arnason says. “It’s a--a what do you call it?--a Catch-22.”

Last fall, Iceland’s minister of culture bypassed the importers and wrote directly to the Redmond, Wash., headquarters of the software giant, warning Microsoft that if a translation wasn’t forthcoming, this country would find other ways to computerize its schools.

That at least elicited a letter, saying that Microsoft wouldn’t translate Windows 95, but it might translate Windows 98. Since then, nothing.

So now, Iceland is bringing in the heavy artillery: President Olafur Grimsson himself is about to join the campaign. Details of his spin offensive are still under wraps, but the push is expected to coincide with other U.S.-Nordic friendship gestures scheduled for the turn of the millennium.

Will it be enough to change policy at a company that has already shown itself willing to take on the Justice Department and 20 American states?

“I am not pessimistic in any other area, but we have no control over this,” Kristinsson says. “Bill Gates doesn’t even listen to Bill Clinton, so I don’t think he will listen to us.”