ISO language codes versus country codes

Wischhoefer Cord Wischhoefer" <
Thu, 16 May 2002 11:04:31 +0200

Dear All,

I totally agree with Havard Hjulstad's comments.

Language and country are two different, although often related, concepts.
They require different codin systems.

The best thing to do is to keep these two data elements apart. I personally
feel that having identical codes for the language (e.g Japanese) and the
country name (e.g. Japan) is not necessary and may even be a disadvantage

Keep your data elements apart and you are fine.


Cord Wischhöfer
ISO 3166/MA Secretary

Tel.: +41 22 749 72 33
Fax: +41 22 749 73 49
E-mail: <>

----- Original Message -----
From: "Havard Hjulstad" <>
To: <>
Sent: Thursday, May 16, 2002 11:00 AM
Subject: RE: ISO language codes versus country codes

> There are many historical reasons and constraints that have lead to
> differences between ISO 639 (language identifiers) and ISO 3166 (country
> identifiers). During the first stage of the revision of ISO 639:1988 it
> investigated whether it would be feasible to coordinate the new version
> ISO 3166. Although there were advantages, the disadvantages and problems
> all ISO 639 users were deemed to clearly outweigh the advantages. A large
> number of changes would have had to be done, including changing
> to different identifiers that previously had different meanings. All in
> this was clearly unacceptable.
> In some cases there is a clear correspondence between country and
> but in most cases language borders and the borders between countries do
> overlap. In the vast majority of cases language and country cannot be
> identified in "one scoop" anyway. To identify languages you use ISO 639;
> identify countries you use ISO 3166. The two are different; just
> Also bear in mind that there are easily 20-30 times as many languages as
> there are countries.
> Regards,
> Havard Hjulstad
> (convener of ISO/TC37/SC2/WG1; project editor of ISO 639-1)
> -----Original Message-----
> From:
> []On Behalf Of Sean M. Burke
> Sent: 16. mai 2002 00:33
> To:
> Subject: ISO language codes versus country codes
> Recently I've been trying my hand at software localization by getting
> friends and friends-of-friends to help me localize the open-source program
> Namp (a.k.a. Apache::MP3 --
> into various languages.  Along the way, I've discovered that many people
> don't know the language tag for their own language, because they (falsely)
> assume it to be the same as the country code.  Consider jp/ja for
> Japan/Japanese, cz/cs, cn/zh, my/ms, si/sl, ua/uk, se/sv, etc.
> My question, and it is a historical one, is:
> How did these differences come to be?
> --
> Sean M. Burke
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