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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Language of Sagas Repels English Attack

I hand the agent my brottfarerspjald and step on board Icelandair Flight 642. Some five hours later, we begin our descent into Reykjavik. At the airport, I get my passport stamped at vagabraeftirlit, make a quick refresher stop in the snyrtingar, and pick up tourist information at the upplysingapjonustu fyrir feroafolk.

I have come to this nation of 280,000 inhabitants to see how they are holding up against the onslaught of English. Iceland's linguistic patriots go to incredible lengths to preserve their language. Foreign words are ruthlessly screened out by a special agency, which also invents words for new things and ideas. There's a word for everything in Icelandic -- or there will be shortly.

Icelanders have a strong belief in their own national greatness, and that conviction is rooted unshakably in language and words. Iceland has more bookstores per capita than any other nation in the world. Sales of a new novel in Iceland will compare favorably with sales for a similar book in Britain -- while a volume of poetry would do even better -- with a population about 1/200th that of Britain.

Language preservation worked nicely for centuries because Icelanders lived diphthongs apart from the rest of the world, but in recent decades the cultural floodgates have opened. English is everywhere.

Why care? "When you lose a language," the late linguistics professor Kenneth Hale once said, "you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It's like dropping a bomb on a museum."

The front line of Iceland's preservation battle is the Icelandic Language Institute. When AIDS first came to national attention in Iceland, the main discussion was what to call it rather than how to prevent it. The institute does not believe that AIDS should be called AIDS, and thus the disease is officially known as alnaemi, an ancient Icelandic word meaning "totally vulnerable," which the institute settled on after some three years of study. The preservationists often resurrect words from the sagas. A computer is called tolva, a fusion of the old Icelandic words for number and prophetess, and a TV screen is a skjar, a sheep's placenta once used by farmers as windowpanes. My favorite is friopjofur, the word for pager, which means "thief of peace."

Yet just as they have earnestly defended their language, Icelanders have made sure that every child has a computer and learns English. Thus Microsoft sees no need to translate Windows into Icelandic. The publishers of popular books are beginning to skip translation as well. It's what the Icelandic language purists call a sjalfhelda -- a Catch-22. I fear the handwriting is on the wall -- and it's in English.

Reporter William Ecenbarger contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times, where it originally appeared.