proposed ISO standard for language variations

Don Osborn dzo at
Tue May 10 17:32:45 CEST 2016

Thanks for sharing this Peter.

At first glance this brings to mind the old ISO 639-6, although there 
are differences. Any connections between the two we should know about?

Per Yury's comment on 'i+1-th level' subtags, I would add that it does 
seem that the project (in the grand sense) of standardization as regards 
languages focuses more on distinctions within languages (in the case of 
the L2/16-131 proposal, "down to the language variety of an individual 
speaker"), the broad utility of which is hard to see, outside perhaps of 
description. Not to say such distinctions are not useful - they can be 
of course, but where the need arises. So I tend to agree with Yury's 

What is missing I think is systematic attention to the '(i-1)th level' - 
or perhaps '(i-0.5)th level' - where mutual intelligibility, common 
phonetics, similar structure, and shared vocabulary may, and in many 
cases does, make linguistic boundaries fade. It is at the this level 
that communication happens but mostly outside the description of the 
coding system. Yes, macrolanguages are in this space, but my 
understanding of that category is that it was forced by the need to 
accommodate certain established ISO 639-1/2 categories broader than what 
were identified for ISO 639-3, and as such was never extended to other 
logical candidates. An example of the latter is Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, 
which are close enough that I am told that speakers of one understand 
the other, and that a recent job announcement called for a translator of 
"Kinyarwanda or Kirundi" (implying a functional equivalence of the two 
for whatever their needs were).

Such "neighbor languages," to use the term sometimes applied to 
Scandinavian languages, may represent a particular class of 
opportunities for language technology, speech recognition, and 
localization. Would it help to expand the subtag system such as 
proporsed in L2/16-131 to somehow account for these. I.e., that 
such-and-such language is not an isolate, but rather interintelligible 
(more or less fully, or partially) with a select set of other languages? 
Or alternatively, would addition of macrolanguages to ISO 639, and 
policies to support that process, be the road to take?

To return to the Kinyarwanda/Kirundi example, would the work of 
L2/16-131 be facilitated in such cases by being able to scope out to a 
level combining two (or more) separately encoded but very close 
languages before identifying 'i+1-th level' linguistic varieties to 
describe with subtags?

Finally a note on "down to the language variety of an individual 
speaker." I've long thought that a "pointillist" model might be 
interesting for describing some kinds of social dynamics, and this 
certainly would include language. Not practical for the topic addressed 
by this list, but possibly useful for linguistic analysis, if one could 
have data that detailed...

Don Osborn

On 5/10/2016 7:37 AM, Yury Tarasievich wrote:
> On 09/05/16 21:13, Peter Constable wrote:
>> I believe they want to have a clear model for creating metadata 
>> elements or identifiers for all kinds of language variations. Compare 
>> that to our current use of variant subtags, which conflates any kinds 
>> of distinction _other than_ script or national/super-national 
>> regions. If we had requests for hundreds of variant subtags with many 
>> having overlapping semantics, we'd have a bit of a mess to sort through.
> The concept itself -- a set of generic 'i+1-th level' subtags 
> appliable to any 'i-th level' subtag -- is appealing.
> Hovewer, the implementation would inevitably produce a plethora of 
> obscure and hardly usable elements, and the application would hit the 
> obstacle of 'pure' types almost never existing.
>> Without speaking for or against the proposed model, I have had 
>> numerous linguistics textbooks that did not present anything like this.
> I was thinking about 'any' university-level textbook of 'traditional 
> Russian school' of linguistics.
> -Yury
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