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

Mark Davis mark.davis at
Tue Feb 21 02:59:21 CET 2006

I agree with Doug's comments. The use of "sgn-xxx" was never a 
particularly way of tagging, since it implies that there is some level 
of shared comprehension between "sgn-xxx" and "sgn-yyy". Much better 
would be "xxx-signed", etc.


Doug Ewell wrote:
> 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
> [1]
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