ISO 639-5 reconfirmation ballot (long)
doug at ewellic.org
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 If [ISO 639-5] were withdrawn, our Registry would remain unchanged.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withdrawn -- deprecate the corresponding subtag -- I don't believe it
has any provision for an entire standard to be withdrawn or its RA or MA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"
(§3.1.7). 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 (http://www.ethnologue.com/browse/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 | ewellic.org
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