Macrolanguages, countries & orthographies (RE: ISO 639 name change: Songhai languages)

Don Osborn dzo at
Sun Feb 11 01:53:04 CET 2007

I am coming back to a set of questions I did not get to answer before I had
to drop this to focus on some other things...

> -----Original Message-----
> From: CE Whitehead [mailto:cewcathar at]
> Sent: Tuesday, January 09, 2007 1:19 PM
> To: dzo at; petercon at; ietf-languages at
> Subject: RE: ISO 639 name change: Songhai languages
DZO>> "Macrolanguage thus facilitates making the country level
>> distinctions for orthography and locales; language (per Ethnologue)
>> facilitates text or at least more complex texts. (That's a broadbrush
>> statement, but is generally true, from what I see.)"
CEW> ????  I'm sorry I'm lost by how Macrolanguage is facilitating country
> level
> distinctions for orthography and locales;
> orthography is not based on macrolanguage is it? ???  But I probably do
> not
> need to understand this sentence.

Othographies (as in alphabets and the rules for using them) in Africa are
generally set on a country level. If the language variations within a
country are covered by that single orthography, then for some uses it seems
like macrolanguage-country is an operant level of identification. There are
a lot of other issues involved, but from where we started in this discussion
with keyboards, it would only make sense to define one layout for Fulfulde
in Niger, for instance, even though there are technically different
varieties of spoken Fulfulde in the country.

On the other hand, borders that group different languages of a macrolanguage
together in one country might split a language between orthographies of two
countries. So, Pulaar in western Mali uses the Malian orthography for
Fulfulde/Pulaar along with other varieties of the language, while Pulaar in
Senegal (several dialects) use the Senegalese orthography. 

So not only are there individual issues like this, but if one decided to
exercise all the ISO-639 and ISO-3166 codes, the resultant divisions could
get unmanageable for some uses. At least that is how it seems to me when I
think about it. 

Apart from the issue of orthographies which are dependent more on ISO-3166,
in effect, than ISO-639, I make a distinction between what I see as levels
of precision for localization depending on the needs. People who research
Fulfulde/Pulaar will say that texts or complicated speech in one particular
variety may be a problem for people to understand fully in another area. On
the other hand, native speakers of the language do adjust to one anothers'
speech quite well (and actually people do know about specific differences in
varieties of the (macro)language). The latter indicates to me that at such
time as we get to localizing software in Fulfulde/Pulaar or varieties
thereof, we may be using aggregations above the level of languages as
defined by ISO-639-3, possibly on the macrolanguage level.

>> "So, to say a Keyman keyboard like the AFRO one is appropriate for the
>> Fulfulde of Western Niger (fuh) is not really accurate or helpful.
>> Anything
>> that is good for the west is good for the east (fuq) and you'd be
>> better off
>> referring to just Fula macrolanguage (a locale would be ff-NE). And as
>> far
>> as keyboards for that language go, they would probably cover several
>> country
>> locales, but that is getting offtopic again..."
> Don this second sentence does seem to make sense (I can parse it; I
> could
> not parse the first one); I am still trying to make sense of the
> statement
> above but like I said, maybe I do not need to, so o.k. you don't need
> to
> respond to my ???? unless I've missed something elemental.

Basically this is the orthography issue again. On this page you will see
basically the ff-NE orthography:

No one in Niger, to my knowledge is discussing or ever has discussed fuh-NE
and fuq-NE orthographies, and in fact the tendency in the region since a
conference in Bamako 40 years ago on harmonizing transcriptions for
crossborder languages has been in the other direction: aiming at something
like an orthography for ff-SN+GM+GN+ML+BF+BJ+NE+NG+CM (plus a few others)
without reference to differences among varieties of the (macro)language.
However, as alluded to above, there are still some country-to-country

I hope this makes sense. It's been a long day here but hopefully enough
synapses got this together enough.


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