ISO 639 - New item approved - N'Ko

Håvard Hjulstad havard at
Fri Jun 9 21:38:28 CEST 2006

A brief word from the ignorant who started this whole thing by sending out
the original message on behalf of ISO 639 Ras-JAC:

ISO 639 registers English reference name(s), French reference name(s), and
"indigenous" reference name(s) of languages. However, the objects of
standardization are (1) the item as such, i.e. which language it is, and (2)
the language identifier. The spelling of names in English and French has not
been a primary concern (nor will it be, even after this discussion).

The registration of indigenous name is not always absolutely relyable in our
tables. A number of spellings and transcription systems have been used, and
there are a number of inconsistencies. As a linguist, I don't like that. But
the spelling is not the object of standardization, and it isn't possible to
allocate the time needed to do that particular part perfectly.

The English reference names are English. They don't attempt, and shouldn't
attempt, to represent indigenous forms, character sets or scripts. As far as
I know, the English language doesn't have e.g. clicks. And in an English
word like "N'Ko" there aren't really a whole lot of dumb and smart
apostrophes to chose between. There is just an apostrophe. That is what
there is in the English reference name column of ISO 639.

The language "Gwich'in" was mentioned a while ago in the discussion. It is
correct that on the web site (Library of Congress) the character ´ (acute
accent over "air") is used. But in the standard itself (ISO 639-2:1998)
there is a plain and simple English apostrophe. May be the form "Gwich´in"
on the web site is "wrong"; but it isn't intended to be different from
"Gwich'in". If this is a problem from retrieval point of view, it is the
search engine that is too "smart".

I am not at all opposed to enhancing the quality of the representation of
names in ISO 639. We should aim for a system where names in all kinds of
languages are available, and where the indigenous names have the highest
quality. But we don't get there by increasing the number of different
apostrophes in the English language.


Håvard Hjulstad    mailto:havard at & mailto:hhj at 
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