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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

ISO 639 is the set of international standards that lists short codes for language names. It was also the name of the original standard, approved in 1967 and withdrawn in 2002.

ISO 639 consists of different parts, of which four parts have been approved (parts 1, 2, 3 and 5). The other parts are works in progress.[1]


The six parts of the standard

Standard Name (Codes for the representation of names of languages -- ...) First Edition Current No. In List
ISO 639-1 Part 1: Alpha-2 code 1967 (as ISO 639) 2002 185
ISO 639-2 Part 2: Alpha-3 code 1998 1998 >450
ISO 639-3 Part 3: Alpha-3 code for comprehensive coverage of languages 2007 2007 7704 + local range
ISO/DIS 639-4 Part 4: Implementation guidelines and general principles for language coding (As of July 2009 in DIS stage) - -
ISO 639-5 Part 5: Alpha-3 code for language families and groups 2008-05-15 2008-05-15 114
ISO/FDIS 639-6 Part 6: Alpha-4 representation for comprehensive coverage of language variation (As of July 2009 in FDIS stage) -  ?

Each part of the standard is maintained by a maintenance agency, which adds codes and changes the status of codes when needed.

Characteristics of individual codes


  • Individual languages
  • Macrolanguages (part 3)
  • Collections of languages (part 1, 2, 5) (part 1 contains only 1 collection: bh; most collections are in part 2, and a few were added in part 5)
    • Group
    • Rest group
  • Dialects
  • Reserved for local use (part 2, 3)
  • Special situations (part 2, 3)

Types (for individual languages):

  • Living languages (part 2, 3) (all macrolanguages are living languages[2])
  • Extinct languages (part 2, 3) (437[3], four in part 2 chb, chg, cop, sam; none in part 1)
  • Ancient languages (part 1, 2, 3) (112[4], 19 are in part 2; and 5 of them, namely ave, chu, lat, pli and san, also have a code in part 1: ae, cu, la, pi, sa)
  • Historic languages (part 2, 3) (63[5], 16 of them are in part 2, none has part 1 code)
  • Constructed languages (part 2, 3) (19[6], 9 in part 2: epo, ina, ile, ido, vol, afh, jbo, tlh, zbl; five in part 1: eo, ia, ie, io, vo)

Bibliographic and terminology codes

  • Bibliographic (part 2)
  • Terminology (part 2)

Relations between the parts

The first four columns contain codes for a representative of a specific type of relation between the parts of ISO 639. E.g. there are four elements that have a code in part 1, have a B/T code, and are macrolanguages per part 3. One representative of these four elements is "Persian" [fas].

ISO 639-1 ISO 639-2 ISO 639-3 ISO 639-5 # Description of example
en eng eng (-) 132 185 in Part 1, subtract all special cases for Part 1 codes, 185-2-25-17-4-2-1-1-1=132
nb nob nob (-) 2 individual language, belongs to macrolanguage (nor), same code in Part 2 and has a code in Part 1. The two codes are: nob, non
ar ara ara (M) (-) 25 Part 3 macro, 55 macro total, subtract special cases, 55-24-4-1-1=25
de ger/deu (B/T) deu (-) 15 22 elements where B and T differ. Subtract special cases, 22-1-4-2=15.
cs cze/ces (B/T) ces (-) 1 Element with differing B/T code and the letters from the Part 1 code are not the first two letters of the T code.
fa per/fas (B/T) fas (M) (-) 4 Part 3 macro; the four T codes are: fas, msa, sqi, zho
hr scr/hrv (B/T) hrv (-) 2 Part 2 B deprecated, the two T codes are: hrv, srp. Deprecated 2008-06-28.
no ("M") nor ("M") nor (M) (-) 1 Part 3 macro and containing languages have codes in Part 1, nor: non, nob; no: nn, nb
bh bih (-)  ? 1 Bihari (bih) is marked as collective despite having an ISO 639-1 code which should only be for individual languages. The reason is that some individual Bihari languages received an ISO 639-2 code, which makes Bihari a language family for the purposes of ISO 639-2, but a single language for the purposes of ISO 639-1. The single are: bho, mai, mag
sh (-) hbs (M) (-) 1 Part 3 macro, ISO 639-1 code deprecated, no part 2 code
(bh) bho bho (-) 3 individual language code in Part 2 + 3, belongs not to a macrolanguage, in Part 1 covered by a code which has equivalent in Part 2 which is a collective. The three codes are: bho, mai, mag
(bh) (bih) sck (-) individual language no code in Part 2, belongs not to a macrolanguage, in Part 1 covered by a code which has equivalent in Part 2 which is a collective.
(-) car car car individual language in Part 2 and Part 3, but also included in Part 5 as a family[7][8]
(-) ast ast (-) individual language in Part 2 and Part 3, no code in Part 1
(-) bal bal (M) (-) 24 individual language in Part 2 and macro in Part 3, no code in Part 1
(-) mis mis  ? 1 special code: missing code
(-) mul mul  ? 1 special code: multilingual content
(-) und und  ? 1 special code: undetermined
(-) zxx zxx  ? 1 special code: added 2006-01-11 to declare the absence of linguistic information
(-) qaa qaa  ? 520 reserved for local use, range is qaa ... qtz
(-) aus (-) aus regular group in Part 2
(-) afa (-) afa In Part 2 a rest group, i.e. same code but different languages included. In Part 2 "afa" refers to an Afro-Asiatic language that does not have an individual-language identifier in Part 2, and that does not fall into the rest groups "ber - Berber (Other)", "cus - Cushitic (Other)", or "sem - Semitic (Other)", all of which are Afro-Asiatic language groups.
(ar) (ara "M") arb (-) individual language, belongs to macrolanguage (ara), in Part 2 covered by the macrolanguage code, in Part 1 also covered
(-) (nic "R") aaa (-) in Part 2 best covered by a rest group, "Niger-Kodofanian (Other)"
(-) (-) (-) sqj group not coded in Part 2
  • codes in Part 1 have one or two codes (B/T codes) in Part 2, every language that has two codes in Part 2 has one code in Part 1
    • one code: en -> eng
    • two codes (#~23): de <-> ger/deu
  • Part 2 has reserved codes and three special codes
    • qaa ... q??, mul, und, zxx
  • individual languages in Part 2 have a code in Part 3 and have one or no code in Part 1
    • one code: eng -> eng -> en
    • no code: ast -> ast -> (empty)
  • collective codes in Part 2 have a code in Part 5
    • cover different languages: afa != afa
    • cover same languages: aus = aus
  • one collective code in Part 2 has a code in Part 1
    • bih -> bh
  • some codes in Part 5 have no code in Part 2
    • sqj
  • some codes (#~56) in Part 3 are macrolanguages, they may have
    • no Part 2 code but a Part 1 codes and their containing languages have codes in Part 2 and Part 1 (#1): hbs <-> sh (deprecated) ; bos, hrv/scr, srp/scc -> bs, hr, sr
    • a Part 2 code and a Part 1 code(#1), while their containing languages also have codes in Part 1 and Part 2: nor -> nor -> no ; non, nob -> non, nob -> nn, nb
    • no Part 1 code (#several):
    • two Part 2 codes (B/T) (#4): fas, msa, sqi, zho -> per/fas, may/msa, alb/sqi, chi/zho

Use of ISO 639 codes

The language codes defined in the several sections of ISO 639 are used for bibliographic purposes and, in computing and internet environments, as a key element of locale data. The codes also find use in various applications, such as Wikipedia URLs for its different language editions.

Code space

Alpha-2 code space

"Alpha-2" codes (for codes composed of 2 letters of the basic Latin alphabet) are used in ISO 639-1. When codes for a wider range of languages were desired, more than 2 letter combinations could cover (a maximum of 262 = 676), ISO 639-2 was developed using Alpha-3 codes (though the latter was formally published first).

Alpha-3 code space

"Alpha-3" codes (for codes composed of 3 letters of the basic Latin alphabet) are used in ISO 639-2, ISO 639-3, and ISO 639-5. Mathematically, the upper limit for the number of languages and language collections that can be so represented is 263 = 17,576.

The common use of Alpha-3 codes by three parts of ISO 639 requires some coordination within a larger system.

Part 2 defines four special codes mul, und, mis, zxx, a reserved range qaa-qtz (20 × 26 = 520 codes) and has 23 double entries (the B/T codes). This sums up to 520 + 23 + 4 = 547 codes that cannot be used in part 3 to represent languages or in part 5 to represent language families or groups. The remainder is 17,576 – 547 = 17,029.

There are somewhere around six or seven thousand languages on Earth today[9]. So those 17,029 codes are adequate to assign a unique code to each language, although some languages may end up with arbitrary codes that sound nothing like traditional name(s) of that language.

Alpha-4 code space

"Alpha-4" codes (for codes composed of 4 letters of the basic Latin alphabet) is proposed to be used in ISO 639-6. The upper limit for the number of languages and dialects that can be represented is 264 = 456,976.

See also


External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

Wikipedia has an article on:




ISO 639

  1. An ISO standard for codes defining the names of languages.

See also

List of ISO 639 codes at Wikipedia

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