proposed ISO standard for language variations

Peter Constable petercon at
Mon May 9 01:41:03 CEST 2016

I met the main author behind this at a TC37 meeting a couple of years ago. He was interested in things like this at that time, that would meet the needs of linguists generally, and wondering how to revise ISO 639-3 to accommodate all of those needs. I introduced him to BCP 47 and the provision for extensions, suggesting that as a better approach than trying to fit into 639-3 things beyond its intended scope. So, I wasn't surprised to see in the proposal the idea of using the proposed framework as the basis for a BCP 47 extension.


-----Original Message-----
From: John Cowan [mailto:cowan at] On Behalf Of John Cowan
Sent: May 8, 2016 2:54 PM
To: Peter Constable <petercon at>
Cc: ietf-languages <ietf-languages at>
Subject: Re: proposed ISO standard for language variations

Peter Constable scripsit:

> New Work Item Proposal for TC37/SC2: Identification and description of 
> language varieties

This is very preliminary, of course, but the list of dimensions along which languages can and do vary is already of interest to us:

1) in space (dialects, regionalects)

2) in time (Old, Middle, Modern, and their subdivisions)

3) by social group (gender, class, technical jargon)

4) by modality (spoken, written, signed, hummed, whistled, drummed)

5) by situation (formal, informal, neutral, motherese, foreigner-talk)

6) by individual usage (too fine-grained for us)

7) by proficiency (native, advanced, intermediate, beginning)

8) by functional disability (very complex substructure)

Even if this work item never progresses to an international standard, we can use it to help analyze incoming requests and get an idea of what kinds of differentia people might reasonably ask for.  The details in parens above are not yet standardized.

If this standard either comes to fruition or stops being worked on, we might use a one-letter tag followed by name-value pairs like those of the u-tag, leading to something like en-v-time-middle-space-eastangl-mode-informal.

John Cowan        cowan at
Principles.  You can't say A is made of B or vice versa.
All mass is interaction.  --Richard Feynman

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