Sign languages (was: Re: additions to ISO 639 and the IANA language subtag registry)

Doug Ewell dewell at
Tue Feb 21 00:20:30 CET 2006

Michael Everson <everson at evertype dot com> wrote:

> RFC 3066 registed sgn- as a generic (and non-genetic) indicator of
> the type of language (signed not spoken). Then the use of language
> tag and geographical tag corresponds to what the languages are
> usually called (generally in spoken languages with which the
> coexist). This notation is flexible enough to distinguish between
> American Sign Language and Signed English (as used in America). The
> Ethnologue and 639 give arbitrary three-letter codes for only the
> former class. I think this is a poor decision on the part of the
> editors of the Ethnologue, and we still have the problem of the
> latter class.
> But I have said this before, and no one seemed to take me seriously.
> So now we have an RFCbis which probably doesn't help the Deaf
> community very well. Particularly as no one probably discussed this
> issue with Deaf community leaders like Valerie Sutton, who actually
> use the codes.

I certainly agree that both true sign languages and signed spoken 
languages should be supported, and distinguished from each other.  For 
the latter, within the next week I will introduce a proposal to register 
the variant subtag "signed", which would indicate the signed version of 
a spoken language.  Using this mechanism, for example, Signed Spoken 
English would be "en-signed".

For the former, I am not convinced that not grouping all possible sign 
languages under a common "sgn-" umbrella constitutes "not helping the 
Deaf community very well."  We don't group Romance languages or 
Dravidian languages under such an umbrella, nor is there ever any 
guarantee that subtags are mnemonic (cf. "myv" for Erzya).  The 
existence of a language subtag (or code element) for a given language at 
all is what confers support.

In any event, all of the tags in "sgn-" that were considered critical 
enough, or in high-enough demand, to be registered under RFC 3066 are 
still perfectly valid under RFC 3066bis.  No new "sgn" tags had been 
registered since November 2001.

It was never the case that "the Deaf community" -- if indeed there is a 
single, unified Deaf community -- could conformantly use any of the tags 
listed in Michael's "Table B: Provisional Codes" [1], any more than 
users of a spoken language could invent their own (non-private-use) 
language tag.  Any language tag would have to have been registered 
before use, under either RFC 1766 or 3066 or 3066bis.

If there is a future revision to RFC 3066bis to incorporate the 
forthcoming ISO 639-3, which is based on Ethnologue codes but which 
should replace "Ethnologue" in our discussions, then I strongly support 
including the ISO 639-3 code elements for sign languages as primary 
language subtags at that time.

Doug Ewell
Fullerton, California, USA


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