Generic variants (was: Re: BCP47 Appeals process)

Doug Ewell doug at
Thu Sep 18 15:27:52 CEST 2008

Randy Presuhn <randy underscore presuhn at mindspring dot com> wrote:

> Though there is no formal prohibition against doing "generic" 
> variants, there has been a marked reluctance to define them.  I think 
> part of the reluctance comes from the ambiguity doing so would give 
> the the variant records, particularly if the description fields are 
> not constructed with extreme care to define exactly what the variant 
> subtag might mean in each of the contexts in which it might appear.

For the existing generic variants, I don't think we could possibly be 
any clearer than "International Phonetic Alphabet" and "Uralic Phonetic 

There is a lot of misunderstanding concerning the concept of generic 
variants.  Generics are the logical extension of multiple prefixes.  The 
idea of multiple prefixes is that each variant subtag is supposed to 
have essentially the *same meaning* regardless of which prefix it is 
applied to.  For example, 'baku1926' has the same meaning whether it is 
applied to "az" or "tt"; it refers to a particular alphabet and set of 
orthographic conventions which apply in a similar way to both 
Azerbaijani and Tatar.

IPA takes this concept to the logical extreme: by its design, it can be 
applied to almost any spoken language.  The concept of "IPA" or the 
principles of its use do not substantially change depending on which 
language is being written in IPA.  By that measure, it makes sense to 
define 'fonipa' generically.

A subtag like 'northern' would not be the same, because its meaning 
would be completely different depending on the language to which it is 
applied.  "Northern Italian" and "Northern German," to pick a random 
example, would not have any common concept of Northern-ness.  The 
similarity of the names would be a coincidence and would not reflect any 
parallelism in the language variations themselves.

So 'northern', if defined, should not be defined as a generic variant. 
The problem, though, is that it *looks* generic; it looks as though it 
could be applied to any language that has a "Northern" variety, even if 
these varieties have nothing in common linguistically.  That is not 
appropriate, and so we discourage registering generic-looking variants 
that don't have the generic nature.  This is the problem many people 
have with 'academy'.  It looks generic even though it is not.

But that does not mean we should be reluctant to register generic 
variants in the future if the variation being represented really does 
have the generic nature, like IPA.  Right at the moment, I can't think 
of any other types of variation that have this nature, besides other 
phonetic alphabets, but that does not mean none exist.  Much, perhaps 
all, of the existing reluctance stems from misunderstanding.

Doug Ewell  *  Thornton, Colorado, USA  *  RFC 4645  *  UTN #14  ˆ

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