New Last Call: 'Tags for Identifying Languages' to BCP

John Cowan jcowan at
Mon Dec 13 15:11:17 CET 2004

Peter Constable scripsit:

> The ISO 3166 MA maintains that standard in accordance with the
> identifiers specified by the UN Statistics Division; a change by the UN
> is all the convincing that is required.

Umm, not quite.  The UNSD defines what a "country" is, and assigns it
a 3-digit code (normative) and a name (informative); the ISO 3166 MA
then specifies 2-letter and 3-letter codes for that name.

> This scenario is not hypothetical; it actually occurred in the case of
> CS. The change was solely under the control of the UN Statistics
> Division; it is not part of their process to consult with developers and
> users of IT systems in general, and they were not consulted in this
> case. They were completely powerless to influence the change, learning
> about it only after the fact.

UNSD had nothing to do with this.  It assigned the hitherto-unused code
891 for the country now called "Serbia and Montenegro".  (Yugoslavia
had the code 890, Czechoslovakia the code 200).  This was a reasonable
judgment in the circumstances: the question of when a country has changed
into another country is always fuzzy.  It was the ISO 3166 MA and no
one else who chose to assign the 2-letter code "CS" to the new country.

UNSD historically has assigned new numerical codes when new "countries"
come into existence, and has managed to avoid reusing any of its 3-digit
identifiers, which is precisely why those identifiers are being used as
trusted backups in RFC 3066bis for the unstable ISO 3166 identifiers.

> This is a situation we do not intend to repeat.

Agreed, but let's make sure not to blame the innocent.

> It is not uncommon for users to confuse "JA" and "JP". 


I've done it myself, and in implementation, not merely in discussion.
Fortunately, the evidence is now buried.

John Cowan  jcowan at
Arise, you prisoners of Windows / Arise, you slaves of Redmond, Wash,
The day and hour soon are coming / When all the IT folks say "Gosh!"
It isn't from a clever lawsuit / That Windowsland will finally fall,
But thousands writing open source code / Like mice who nibble through a wall.
        --The Linux-nationale by Greg Baker

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