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

Doug Ewell dewell at
Mon Feb 12 08:57:52 CET 2007

Don Osborn <dzo at bisharat dot net> wrote:

> Thanks, John, Doug. The main thing I'm thinking about is flexibility 
> in use of ISO-639 codes. So, "be able to code" sounds great. Fula 
> (Fulfulde/Pulaar/Pular) is perhaps an extreme case, but the general 
> issues I brought up are not unique to that tongue.

I have to admit to a bit of concern over the word "flexibility" in this 
context.  Often when someone calls for us to be more "flexible" in our 
use of standard codes, it comes down to inventing our own code elements 
that look like they belong to the standard but don't, or second-guessing 
the work of the experts who have assembled the standards.  Lately we 
have seen new and creative interpretations of "macrolanguage" which 
don't square with the definition of that term according to ISO 639-3/RA, 
which invented it.  Before that, we were asked to register 2-letter 
region subtags that have never been assigned in ISO 3166-1.

I'm reminded of a manager I once worked for who made a change in our 
software that was intended to make it more "flexible" for the user, 
without bothering to find out that the additional "flexibility" was a 
violation of Federal regulations.

In your previous post, you mentioned the possibility of finer or coarser 
language distinctions that might apply in different circumstances.  I'd 
be interested to know how you feel this could be captured in language 
tags without appearing to usurp the role of the various ISO 639 RAs that 
work on this professionally.  I'm concerned that creating our own 
pseudo-"macrolanguage" groupings might thrust us into a role for which 
we are not qualified, especially if we eventually incorporate ISO 639-6 
which will also define multiple levels of relationships between 
languages, but more authoritatively.

You mentioned "an orthography for ff-SN+GM+GN+ML+BF+BJ+NE+NG+CM (plus a 
few others)."  I suppose you're aware that the subtag 011 ("Western 
Africa") is available and the tag "ff-011" might adequately define such 
a standardized orthography for Fulah.  The macrogeographical subtags 
(based on UN M.49) were added to BCP 47 to cover exactly this type of 
"regional but multinational" variety.

Doug Ewell  *  Fullerton, California, USA  *  RFC 4645  *  UTN #14

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