ISO 639-5 reconfirmation ballot (long)

Doug Ewell doug at
Sat Jul 16 21:58:24 CEST 2016

Apologies for length.

John Cowan wrote:

> If [ISO 639-5] were withdrawn, our Registry would remain unchanged.
> Our only obligation with respect to ISO 639-5 is to add any subtags
> that the RA (the Library of Congress) should decide to add.  If the RA
> ceases to exist, we don't have to do anything.  Certainly we wouldn't
> remove any of the codes from the former standard.

While BCP 47 says what to do when a core-standard code element is 
withdrawn -- deprecate the corresponding subtag -- I don't believe it 
has any provision for an entire standard to be withdrawn or its RA or MA 
to disband. I would assume the same rule would have to apply: the 
subtags would be deprecated, which as always means "discouraged but 
still valid," and possibly even "preferred in certain contexts" 
(ยง3.1.7). I doubt any of this would cause the earth to stop spinning.

I will say that, from the standpoint not of pure linguistics but of 
users of language tags, whose need is to identify and search for 
content, the idea of withdrawing ISO 639-5 seems excessive.

Language classification is always fraught with disagreement, macro and 
micro. There are numerous ways to classify languages, and different 
approaches meet the needs of different constituencies. Linguists don't 
always need what historians need. It's unlikely that "Eastern Hemisphere 
languages" and "Western Hemisphere languages" would be of use to anyone, 
but there is no one of the existing schemes that serves everyone's needs 

Language classifications are imprecise because languages and our 
understanding of them are imprecise. John wrote:

> "Language" is a concept with a pretty strong basis in fact, though
> there are edge cases and politicized questions.  "Language family" is
> a purely theoretical construct and subject to constant change.

but in fact there are frequent debates and uncertainty over both 
languages and groupings. Every year 639-3/RA gets requests to add newly 
identified languages, delete non-existent ones, merge two or more into 
one, split one into two or more, and create macrolanguages (whatever the 
requester thinks "macrolanguage" means). There is uncertainty within 
grouping schemes as well. Ethnologue maintains a tree of language 
families ( and earlier this 
year they moved a dozen Austronesian languages out of the 
"Malayo-Polynesian" subgroup and into subgroups of their own. They make 
changes like this several times a year. Fortunately for your 
Co-Designated Expert, BCP 47 does not try to keep up with them!

As I understand it, the goal of 639-2 was to provide coding for every 
known language, within a single code space, and with the constraint that 
they couldn't all be enumerated and thousands would have to be covered 
by collection code elements like "X languages" or, more commonly, "Other 
X languages." 639-3 did try to enumerate them all, but the use case for 
collection codes did not disappear. Sometimes one knows that content is 
in (say) some Hmong-Mien language but not which one, and tagging it as 
"Hmong-Mien languages" is better than not being able to tag it at all. 
In a case like that, where identification of some sort is paramount, the 
distinction between an individual language code and a collection code 
might be irrelevant.

This, again as I understand it, is why 639-5 exists, why its repertoire 
was expanded to cover all languages instead of just the "leftovers," why 
it shares a common alpha-3 code space with 639-2 and -3, and why I think 
that, imperfect though it may be, it should be reconfirmed.

Doug Ewell | Thornton, CO, US | 

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