Re: Internationalization--Standard Conventions

From: Markus Kuhn (
Date: Sat May 29 1999 - 11:38:03 EDT

Here a brief list of internationally widely accepted standard
conventions that help to reduce the need for localization:

Measurement System
m, kg, s, A, K, mol, cd
ISO 1000, ISO 31
SI units are now universally used with the exception of the USA.
Britain is now predominately metric with very few exceptions (pints
in pubs, miles on street signs, some older people still think of
body weight in stones). One of the few areas where the metric
system still has to find its way in is typography, where doing
everything in millimeters would be a significant simplification
but the stubbornness of US software vendors prevents this currently.
Even though the SI units are widely known in the US, the associated
style conventions for their usage are not (commonly seen wrong
notations are e.g., km/h -> KPH, kg -> Kgs, s -> secs,
kHz -> KHz, etc.)

Paper Format
ISO 216
Dominant office paper format absolutely everywhere on this planet, except
for USA and Canada.

Time Format
00:00 - 23:59
ISO 8601
Used in most countries, used only partially in English-speaking
countries, used relatively little in the US (where a strange am/pm
convention dominates, even though the 23:59 notation is widely known and

Date Format
ISO 8601
Used in some countries, far less widely used than 23:59, has recently
become the official date notation (or at least an officially recognized
alternative notation) in most European countries, widely used in parts
of Asia as well.

Telephone numbers
+44 1223 334676
ITU-T Recommendation E.123
Very widely recognized today in international business correspondence,
especially since it has become the notation required to appear on fax

Character Set
ISO 10646/Unicode
Today the dominating character set in non-Latin information processing
(mostly thanks to Microsoft Windows). Not yet universally used thanks to
numerous legacy applications, but very likely to replace all other
character set standards in the forseeable future (~10 years). Most
Unicode applications will handle only subsets of the standard, probably
forever, and the old character set compatibility problem will turn into
a Unicode subset incompatibility problem (which should be orders of
magnitude less troublesome).

Over 50% of the world population are able to communicate in some basic
form of English. While Mandarin remains the most widely spoken language,
it's knowledge is geographically rather restricted and English is by far
the most widely understood language. It's main advantage is a rather
easy to learn grammar, its main disadvantage is having a rather bizarre
relationship between spelling and pronunciation. While products for mass
markets still have to be translated into at least one of the ~20 most
widely used languages today, products that are targeted for
well-educated users can often do perfectly with only English product
information today. It is likely that in 3-4 generations, a simple form
of English will be universally accepted as a mandatory second language
for global inter-cultural communication. Artificial languages such as
Esperanto, even though they are significantly easier to learn and
process automatically, seem to have little economic momentum.

Graphical Icons
ISO 7000, ISO 3864, IEC 417, UN road sign guidelines
Some of these are extremely widely known at least in industrialized
countries, (e.g., the IEC 417 symbols on tape recorders, copying
machines, and telephones, etc., the ISO 3864 warning symbols for
ionising radiation, biohazards, flamable materials, poisons,
explosives, etc.)

Any others that I did forget?

Curiously, the dominance of English in international communication seems
to have led to a significant delay of the introduction of other
internationally accepted conventions in English-speaking countries, with
the US being the worst example (They still have non-standard date/time
format, paper sizes, measurement system, etc. while the other
English-speaking countries fixed that mostly in the 1970s).


Markus G. Kuhn, Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK
Email: mkuhn at,  WWW: <>

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