Appeal to ISO 639 RA in support of Elfdalian

Michael Everson everson at
Mon Apr 18 17:09:59 CEST 2016

The following is proposed. 

The group responsible for the IETF language subtags is deeply concerned about the reasons given by the 639 RA for rejection of the Elfdalian language. There is no doubt that its linguistic features are unique in the continuum of North Germanic languages. The reasons supporting rejection are weak and invoke mainly arguments from outside of the field of linguistics. These arguments, originating from one particular Swedish governmental agency, are successfully rebutted in the other contributions, all of which support the addition of Elfdalian to ISO 639-3. The rebuttal documents (given in provide convincing evidence that ​Elfdalian is not merely a dialect, but rather is as distinct from Swedish as Norwegian is (indeed, as distinct from Swedish as Icelandic is); those have separate language codes. No reasoned responses to those documents and their evidence was provided by the 639 RA.

We understand that the Swedish government considers it a dialect of Swedish, but that seems to be a political decision, not a linguistic one. Certainly, Elfdalian is influenced by the national language, Swedish, just as Frisian is influenced by Dutch. But its grammar and phonology are clearly distinct (vowels are not lengthened in open syllables, medial /ð/ and /ɣ/ and Old Norse nasal vowels are retained, and four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative) are preserved at least in definite nouns. The theoretical categorization about “Abstandsprache" vs “Aufbausprache” given in Kristine Zach’s Master’s thesis are not convincing given the actual linguistic data. Elfdalian has archaic features as well as innovative features, and is unique, being closer to Icelandic and Faroese in many ways than it is to Swedish.

We ask the ISO 639 RA to conider this. Elfdalian is a unique and independent language from Swedish as can easily be demonstrated by its phonology and morphology. The request for a language tag for Elfdalian was not made in order to establish it or give it status vis à vis any political process in Sweden. The request for a language tag for Elfdalian was to enable text to be tagged so that texts written in Elfdalian, and to provide standardized tools (CLDR, keyboards) for Elfdalian since many of those tools require formal language tags or subtags. 

The RA’s job is not to evaluate the status of the language in the territory of its speakers. If that were true many minority languages might not have language tags at all. The RA’s job is to recognize the fact that Elfdalian *is* a language, that it is not identical to Swedish, and to assign it a three-letter code for the identification of its name. 

Our aim is to persuade the RA to reverse its decision and issue a code element. We need the RA to recognize that it is only “linguistic identity” which matters, to the extent that such identity supersedes any political or diplomatic considerations. 

There is a legitimate user need for a language subtag for Elfdalian​. Up until now, these have always been supplied by ISO 639. However, there is the possibility in BCP47 for registration of a language sub​tag that is not based on ISO 639, and that process has been initiated. It would be far better for all users of BCP47 and ISO 639 if this step were not taken, but that depends on speedy action by the 639 RA.​ Thus we write to the 639 RA in appeal, and ​strongly request that the language code be added to ISO 639 within the next three months (by 2016-05-31), to avoid this situation.


Michael Everson
Language Subtag Reviewer
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