ISO 639 and other language identifiers

John Cowan
Mon, 6 May 2002 20:11:21 -0400 (EDT)

Caoimhin O Donnaile scripsit:

> 2. Not only the "languages", but also the nodes in the language
>    family trees need to be registered.  This is both to avoid
>    the thorny political questions of what is and what isn't a language,
>    and for convenience.  Someone with a good knowledge of Nedersaksisch
>    (Low Saxon) should be able to specify that they are happy
>    to accept web-pages in Nedersaksisch without having to specify
>    all 13 languages which the Ethnologue currently divides it into.

Doesn't work.  There is far less agreement on family trees even than
there is on languages:  Indo-European outside Indic is fairly stable,
but most of the language families have no firm agreement on classification.
The Ethnologue's classification is basically a compromise tending to the
conservative side.

> 4. The system should also include extinct and historical languages -
>    e.g. "Middle English", "Middle Irish", "Old Irish", "Classical
>    Latin", "Mediaeval Latin".

These are only rough classifications with little agreement on what
they mean.  Again, you pick the easy cases.  Language change, like
languages themselves, is a continuum: we draw dividing lines in
different places for different theoretical purposes.

> 5. A hierarchichal naming system is not possible.  Any hierarchy is
>    too unstable and subject to change.  So the entities need to have
>    distinct independent identifiers.

The entities themselves are unstable, being mere theoretical constructs.

John Cowan <>
I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen,
han mathon ne chae, a han noston ne 'wilith.  --Galadriel, _LOTR:FOTR_