Number Prophetess

I was reminiscing about the country of Iceland a few nights ago when watching the Ben Still film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I’ve visited the place a couple of times, and the wonderful panning shots of the stark volcanic landscape had me thinking of another visit again the near future.

Alongside the breathtaking scenery, another thing I’ve loved about the place is the lyricism in how the locals speak. It’s the legacy of the Sagas I guess, but there is something beautifully poetic about how Icelanders speak, even in a second language like English (my Icelandic, I’m ashamed to say, extends to about “Please” and “Thank you”).

The Icelandic language is something of which the islanders are proudly protective, but with a humility that realises that they aren’t going to get the rest of the world to speak it. New words are regularly added to the lexicon, to transcribe new terms into words that make sense within the local tongue. Tölva is one of those words. It is a portmanteau coined in 1965 that brings together the Icelandic words “Number” and “Prophetess*”. Tölva is Icelandic for computer.

It must have been being in an Icelandic frame of mind that brought this nugget back to me in a Twitter conversation yesterday. In the past it’s something I’ve only ever talked about in the context of the poetic nature of the Nordic languages. But yesterday it struck me that it has a deeper resonance. Prophets (in some interpretations) are those who claim to be able to predict the future. Predicting the future through numbers. It’s no coincidence that we’ve had Oracle, and Delphi.

We crave prophets. Computers are our new seers. They will also turn out to often be false.

* as an aside, I’ve only ever seen this quoted in the past as being Number Prophet. Make of that what you will in discussions about gender stereotyping in the tech industry…

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