ISO 639 name change: Songhai languages

Don Osborn dzo at
Fri Jan 5 23:03:04 CET 2007

(This discusses the intelligibility issues and implications for naming &
coding, and suggests flexibility in use of codes.)

Since the subject line is Songhai let me begin with a story. While I was in
Niger, three Peace Corps volunteers who were pretty good in Zarma language
but obviously still far from native speaking ability took a trip overland to
Timbuktu and then - unbeknownst to us on the staff - decided to purchase a
pirogue and come to Niamey on the river. They had a lot of experience in the
US in canoes and whitewater so figured they knew what they were doing.
Ultimately it worked out okay, but there are some dicey areas in the middle
Niger where hippos hang out. And they sure shocked the border guards. (This
was the kind of thing we would never approve but since it happened I hope
one of them puts in a book.)

Anyway this is all "Songhai languages" territory. If you travel by pirogue
on the river you can only go so far per day without a motor, so they made
several stops along the way. In Timbuktu they had a problem communicating.
In Gao, there was mixing with Bambara and French. But along the river,
stopping to overnight in villages and asking about where the hippos were,
they were evidently quite fine with their PCV level of Zarma. 

Lack of intelligibility of tongues is often cited as the division among
"languages." Between Quichua and Yolngu that's pretty obvious. Between
various "Songhai languages" it seems like more of a judgement call. And even
then intelligibility is often mitigated by the closeness of the tongues
involved. Among native speakers, intelligibility would certainly be more
dynamic than what the PCVs experienced. It may also be mitigated by
education in the language (formally that is still somewhat rare even now)
and by media, especially radio.

When I was a volunteer myself in Jenne (Djenné), Mali a town that had its
own flavor of Songhai called locally Jennecini (though in the multilingual
society there I focused more on Fula), the wisdom was that people from
Timbuktu (Djenné's younger and more famous sister city) could understand
Jennecini, but natives of Jenne had trouble understanding Koroborocini of
Timbuktu. The speech of Gao (the capital of the long ago Sonrai empire) was
difficult for the others but people there could understand Jenne and
Timbuktu. Hombori was difficult for the other three but they supposedly
could understand everyone. This is popular wisdom and not linguistic
research, but such notions of asymmetrical levels of comprehension exist in
other linguistic settings and reflect a certain reality. So in such a case
are they languages in one direction and dialects in the other? And the
ensemble a macrolanguage from one angle and a language group from another?

This is not to stir up trouble with idle questions, but I really have
concerns about the finality with which declarations about intelligibility
and lack of same are being made. I do not argue with those who might say
that a text in one variety might not be fully intelligible to speakers of
another variety. At the same time the commonalities might make one set of,
say, browser commands, intelligible or easily learnable by several or all
varieties. (Hence ISO-639-2 "son" might indeed be appropriate for a locale
for certain purposes - I can't say for sure that it is, but IMO it certainly
shouldn't be ruled out.) 

Ultimately the reality, aside from being complex, might really need such
alternative framing. Which is to say that something like Songhai might be
both a macrolanguage and a language group. Practically speaking it may mean
that localization of different kinds require different categorical
references. This sort of flexibility is probably not compatible with the
assigning of terms (either it's a macrolanguage or it’s a language group,
can't be both), but that needn't be a problem as long as the 639 codes can
be used in ways that meet the various needs of localization.

Don Osborn
PanAfrican Localisation project

> -----Original Message-----
> From: ietf-languages-bounces at [mailto:ietf-languages-
> bounces at] On Behalf Of Kent Karlsson
> Sent: Friday, January 05, 2007 2:50 PM
> To: 'John Cowan'; 'CE Whitehead'
> Cc: ietf-languages at; iso639-2 at; HHj at;
> ISOJAC at; iso639 at
> Subject: RE: ISO 639 name change: Songhai languages
> John Cowan wrote:
> > A macrolanguage is a group of language varieties which are not
> > mutually intelligible,
> If they really aren't mutually intelligible (to a very high degree),
> they are separate languages that cannot be given a macrolanguage
> umbrella.
> > but which are treated as a single language for certain purposes.
> That's what "language collections" are for.  (Like putting books in
> those languages on the same shelf.) Not really useful as language tags,
> nor for locales.
> Chinese is macrolanguage just because the usually used writing system
> is so abstract that it is not phonetic (and thus there is a high degree
> of mutual intelligibility between those languages for written
> documents; simplified vs. traditional aside).
> 	/kent k
> _______________________________________________
> Ietf-languages mailing list
> Ietf-languages at

More information about the Ietf-languages mailing list