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

Don Osborn dzo at
Tue Feb 13 04:03:30 CET 2007

Hi Doug, Replies in text...

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Doug Ewell [mailto:dewell at]
> 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.

It would be interesting to know what those new and creative interpretations of "macrolanguage" are, not that we're looking for inspiration mind you. When I use flexible, I was first thinking that one could code ff-SN or ff-fuc-SN according to the need. An additional thought is locales using macrolanguage codes (what in some cases might be ISO-639-1 or -2).

> 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.

I admit "flexible" can be a loaded term.

> 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.

The short answer is this will probably require collaboration. The long answer follows.

Broadening the question, there's also the issue of people using existing language tags for wider purposes than intended (I will discuss soon with people from Burkina Faso about approaches for localization in ff, bm or dyu and mos - the first two raise issues of coding, locales and wider standardization of terminologies, etc.). Often people conform to the categories - use what's available - even when they could ask for new ones. 

Ultimately the codes and categories should serve the reality, but in some ways they inevitably create a new reality (a little along the lines of institutional economics). A new category like "macrolanguage" is almost guaranteed to lead to various interpretations and perhaps "pseudo-macrolanguage" use, as you put it, when people do not find what they think they are looking for. (An example in a different sphere is how some people in Nigeria apparently substituted characters in existing ISO-8859 / Windows-1252 fonts for the ones in "official languages," with perhaps some effect on the current orthographies.)

Therefore, it may be useful at some point to set up a group in conjunction with ACALAN and localization researchers (we should have a network of sorts set up soon) that could get into these sorts of issues with reference to specifics of African languages. This would not be to usurp the role of the RAs but to collaborate on a wider scale. It is too much to expect the people who work on this professionally, as you put it, to know all the details; or maybe we need to involve more people with the professional background and contextualized knowledge in the process. Because there are complex issues.

I've referred a lot already to the case of Fula(h) (the letter h seems gratuitous though still used - English used to have a bias against words ending in vowels; on the other hand, in the French term, Peul, one sees often Peuhl or Peulh - no problem, but altogether makes one wonder "what the h?"), so here's another example I've brought up previously or elsewhere:

In western Uganda there are 4 closely related languages defined by Ethologue and ISO-639-3: 
*Nyoro nyo (also in ISO 639-2)
*Chiga cgg
*Tooro ttj
*Nyankore nyn (also in ISO 639-2)

These are apparently very close, and the speakers have historic ties. In the early 1990s a movement to develop a standardized form came up with Runyakitara. This is taught in Makerere University now, and has some level of official recognition. There is also a pending project for localizing software in Runyakitara. There are two among several issues here.
1) Linguistically they may collectively have belonged to a macrolanguage without the name. This is not an unusual circumstance.
2) The "creation" of a "new language" (or more properly a standardized version) is an example of language planning still somewhat rare in Africa (another example, though very much a grassroots one, is N'Ko and the Manding languages in West Africa). This will lead to application for a new ISO-639 code (I hope to be discussing this also very soon - the idea is there but dormant). But the main point is that the policy/planning aspect calls our attention to this "macrolanguage" which arguably would have existed without that title had there been no movement or action to develop Runyakitara.

It seems to me that the issue of language codes for African languages has a lot of work yet to be done - this takes nothing away from the incredible amount of work reflected in ISO-639-3 (of course, the SIL research that has informed Ethnologue). It is just a function of the complex situations of languages and linguistic practice in Africa. And it will only get thicker with the advent of parts 5 and 6 and the recalibration of 2.

Part of the purpose behind developing language profiles for localization at is to inform discussions such as what might ensue about codes, macrolanguages, and locales on the continent. This is in part an additional "framing" of the array of African languages, not better than, not a replacement for anything else. Rather a different vantage point on the languages and their interrelationships, along with the complementary frames of countries, etc. 

> 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.

Thanks for this. I was just thinking about such higher level coding. I think the dream for Fula and other cross-border languages has been that each could have a common alphabet and that usage across languages be similar - some progress toward that has been made (mostly in the wake of a meeting in Bamako 40 years ago), but some country differences remain. I'm sure these macrogeographical tags will come in handy.


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