Macrolanguages, countries & orthographies

Doug Ewell dewell at
Tue Feb 13 16:11:14 CET 2007

Don Osborn <dzo at bisharat dot net> wrote:

> 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).

It was proposed that ISO 639-3 should create macrolanguages encompassing 
early, middle, and modern stages of a single language, such as French. 
The working definition of an ISO 639-3 macrolanguage is described at and doesn't seem to have 
anything to do with historical changes in a language.

Using "ff-SN" or "ff-fuc-SN" depending on the required tagging precision 
for the content will be perfectly OK, just like deciding to use or not 
use a region subtag.  Note that this is not the same as deciding to use 
"frm" versus "fr" for a given piece of French text, which is a matter of 
blurring the distinctions drawn by the ISO 639 RAs and not a matter of 

Locales are pretty much up to the groups that define them.  We can't do 
much about them.  We've defined an extension mechanism in case someone 
needs to hang a standardized, non-linguistic bag on the side of language 

> 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.)

I am sure there is, and will continue to be, a lot of confusion and 
misunderstanding about RFC 4646 and the Registry, and their successors. 
I'm not sure what we can do about it, other than to create informative 
Web resources such as Stéphane has done.  If we had an advertising 
budget, it might be different.  :-)

> 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.

Puiblicity is good.  Education is good.

> 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 will certainly be important for the ISO 639-3 people to research new 
languages and add code elements when appropriate.  They currently have 
almost 7600 code elements and I doubt they will be excessively 
conservative about adding more.

I wonder if there is, or is going to be, a public forum to discuss ISO 
639-3 and its structure and policies.  This list really isn't it; we 
take what the external standards give us, and synthesize and arrange. 
We don't directly influence what the external standards do, though there 
are list members who can do so indirectly.

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

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