Title: TC37/SC2 Liaison Report — status of ISO 639
Source: Peter Constable
Date: 2014-10-21
Action: For review by UTC, CLDR TC

In June, 2014, ISO TC37 and its subcommittees met in Berlin for annual face-to-face meetings. During these meetings, there were various issues discussed pertaining to ISO 639.

For the past few years, there has been discussion within TC37/SC2/WG1 of initiating a major overhaul of the ISO 639 family of standards, including suggestions that maintenance processes should be revamped, replacing the current registration authorities and Joint Advisory Committee by an agency in Europe (the Linguistics Department at Max Planck Institute was being proposed) and a scientific advisory board of linguists. After the 2013 meeting of TC37/SC2, however, it was recognized that a major change encompassing all of ISO 639 would also have to engage ISO TC 46/SC4, which was a partner in the development of ISO 639-2. Thus, steps were taken to organize a joint working group with participants from both TC37/SC2 and TC46/SC4. The first meeting of JWG7 was held in May of this year in Washington, DC; the second meeting took place in Berlin. 

During the Berlin meetings, the calls for a radical overhaul of the standards and the maintenance processes (which could lead to destabilizing risks for internationalization platforms and protocols in the IT sector) was curtailed as it was recognized that stability was an essential requirement of the IT and library sectors and critical to the on-going success of ISO 639 standards. Even so, there were still some lesser concerns raised in regard to the current state of the standards and the maintenance processes. For example, there are inconsistencies between the different parts of ISO 639 in terminology and other details, and ways in which the standards could be made more rigorous.

The upshot is that a project team was named to prepare a new edition / new editions of ISO 639, with ma as the project leader. I had expected to be work on drafts over the past summer, but this was delayed by some formalities in getting JWG7 on its feet. Even so, I am still aiming to prepare a draft for CD balloting early in 2015. To get a sense of the expected direction of changes in the new editions, see TC37/SC2/JWG7 N 0018 (= L2/14-256).

One specific issue discussed by JWG7 was what the future should be of ISO 639-6. This standard was created to provide alpha-4 identifiers for language variants (e.g., dialects). Although the standard was approved and published, the code tables for the standard were never fully developed and published by the designated registration authority in a usable form. Also, there have been many who have questioned the value. The decision of JWG7 was to recommend SC2 action to ballot on withdrawal of this standard. That ballot has just closed with the proposal for withdrawal having passed. National bodies will be notified and given two months in which they can object to the withdrawal.