REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- 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.
Icelandic may be spoken by fewer than a half-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 nearly unique 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 ninth 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, "due to the size of the market."
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 that every schoolchild here learned English. With the entire population now proficient in English as a second language, Microsoft sees no point to 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."
And Iceland has a language policy. Let the research labs of the world come forward with their hyperlinks and motherboards, their fuzzy-set logic and their geosynchronous satellite positioning systems. Iceland's linguists have kept pace with them, creating perfectly pedigreed Icelandic words for anything new.
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."
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 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, the schools, ministries of culture and other leading linguistic lights are mired in debate over new foreign words and what to do about them.
Norway's 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.
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 promoted a computer-literate society, starting children early PCs in its schools. Already, it boasts the world's 17th highest rate of Internet usage.
"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 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 through English-language Windows, with the legend, "What kind of child do you want to have?"
Kristinsson heartily approves -- but the Microsoft systems are overwhelmingly used in Iceland.
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 Microsoft, warning 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 Ragnar Grimsson himself is about to join the campaign.
Pub Date: 7/04/98