Re: Internationalization--Standard Conventions

From: Markus Kuhn (
Date: Sat May 29 1999 - 17:21:09 EDT

"G. Adam Stanislav" wrote on 1999-05-29 19:19 UTC:
> On Sat, May 29, 1999 at 08:32:51AM -0700, Markus Kuhn wrote:
> > Telephone numbers
> > +44 1223 334676
> > ITU-T Recommendation E.123
> Please elaborate. Is the +44 the area/country code, and the rest of it the local
> number, or is everything the local number, with the plus indicating the
> are code is missing. I have seen numbers like this, but could never figure
> them out.
> And what would be my company number in this notation? It is (715) 362-9586, but
> that carries an assumption that the country code is 1. The are acode within the
> country code 1 is 715. How would I write it internationally?

Your company would write

 +1 715 362-9586

The purpose of the + is to remind you to enter at this point the
escape sequence that lifts you onto the international level.
This escape sequence is

  00 in most countries (as recommended by ITU-T E.163)
  19 in France (I think)
 011 in North America (I think)

There exists an ITU-T E.something document that lists them all.
See also <>.

My phone number is +44 1223 334676. 44 is the country code of Great
Britain, 1223 is the area code of Cambridge, and 334676 is my local
number in Cambridge. Dialing a 0 prefix lifts you out one level.
I have to dial 0 to get to the national level where I can now enter
an area code. I can also enter a second 0 to get to the international
level where I can enter a country code. Therefore to reach me, dial

             334676 in Cambridge
      0 1223 334676 from elsewhere in Britain
  00 44 1223 334676 from most countries

 011 44 1223 334676 from the US
  19 44 1223 334676 from France

    +44 1223 334676 standard notation

It would all be so easy if France, US, Canada, etc. would finally adopt
the 0 and 00 as their area code and country code introducers as it is
the international recommendation (ITU-T E.163), instead of complaining
that the bloody Europeans still have non-standard phone numbers (which
as shown is not true!).

> > Over 50% of the world population are able to communicate in some basic
> > form of English.
> That sounds highly overstated.

> It is also ridiculous to try to standardize
> what language people should use.

That was not my point! My point was that *if* you want to avoid product
localization regarding the language, then using English is the best
choice today. I said nothing else and the critiques that have been
expressed refer to something that I did not say.

> English is a very poor choice for international communications, IMHO. It is
> a very inexact language, full of idioms, double meanings.

I do not disagree. There is some benefit in publishing formal documents
such as ISO standards in both English and French, because the questions
of the translators uncover often many interesting ambiguities in the
original English document.

> Yes, English is the de facto international language of today, but I would hate
> for it to become a de iure standard. Times change, and so do linguae
> francae.

I did not suggest to make it a de jure language, but I consider it to be
an acceptable default language in situations where using only one single
language is feasible.

None of the previous linguae francae (French, Latin, Greek, etc.) have
ever been as close to reaching critical mass as English is today. The
world's scientific, technological and cultural knowledge body that is
encoded in English today is no doubt several orders of magnitudes larger
than that available in all the previous linguae francae together. It
might therefore well be that English turns out to be the final linguae
francae for our civilization (until we get in contact with much larger
extraterrestrial civilizations of course, which might not happen soon).

This is not my wish, only my observation.

> > Graphical Icons
> > ISO 7000, ISO 3864, IEC 417, UN road sign guidelines
> Any web sites about it? ISO standards are unaffordable to many of us.

ISO standards are also affordable to me, but most ISO standards are also
adopted as British Standards, which are fortunatelly available in most
public libraries in Britain. Nevertheless, the distribution of ISO
standards needs no doubt much improvement. I hear with delight that ISO
10646:1999 will become available freely online.

There is

about a new draft standard that adds many new symbols. If you
consider whether the symbol is familiar to you, please distinguish
between the old and new IEC 417 version.

> > Any others that I did forget?
> Yes. Mathematical notations. How do you read 123.456? One hundred twenty-three
> and 456/1000 or 123456? Some countries use decimal points, others use decimal
> commas. For all I know, some countries may use something else?

Yes, thanks!

ISO 31 defines almost all of the common (high-school and undergraduate
teaching level) scientific notation, including preferred symbols in
formulae, chemical notation, mathematical operators, etc. ISO 31 is a
very important reference if you write undergraduate-level math and
science textbooks or edit scientific publications.

About the decimal dot versus comma: ISO 31 allows both dot and comma.
If you want to separate groups of three digits, then use a thin space,
but never either a dot or a comma, as this would lead easily to cultural

> Yes, currency placements. What is correct: $123 or 123USD? In other words,
> should currency precede or follow value? Should there be a space between the
> two? Should the sign precede or follow the number? What about the relative
> position of sign and currency? -123USD? 123-USD? 123USD-? $-123? -$123? $123-?

I don't think there is an international convention, at least I don't
know any. ISO 4217 (which defines the 3-letter currency codes such as
USD for US dollar, DEM for Deutsche Mark, EUR for the euro, etc.) does
not make any statement. ISO 31 says that units of measurement are to be
put behind the numeric value separated by a space (as in "20 kg"), but
ISO 31 also says in the introduction that is is not intended to cover
monetary units. I still think, ISO 31 is the best convention, i.e. write
500 EUR, 25 USD, etc. Putting the currency after the number is
consistent with the notation for physical units and it will improve
table layout. Why should I put the dollar sign in front, but the
Ohm sign behind a number?

> As for the inches, I knew there were either 12 or 16 inches to a foot,
> but was not sure which it was (I am still not sure). So I asked the 20 or
> so people in the waiting room how many inches were in a foot. Nobody knew...

And if you find one who does actually know, then ask to convert a cubic
feet into gallons. The entire "US customary" system of units and the
American's love for it is unbelievably ridiculous for anyone who grew up
with SI units. Also observe what happens if you try to use a US copying
machine in order to reduce two USLetter page down to the size of a
single USLetter page in landscape format. You end up with ridiculously
large wasted margins, while with A4 paper not a millimeter of paper is
wasted and everything looks neat. Similarly, US printshops have to deal
with a plethora of different aspect ratios, while the rest of the world
has long ago understood the advantage of sqrt(2) formats (see ISO 216).

> Incidentally, I doubt the dominance of English has anything to do with the delay
> of internationalization in the US. I think it has something to do with
> geography. The US is as big as Europe and is separated from the rest of the
> world (except Canada and Mexico) by massive amounts of water. You can travel
> for weeks without ever leaving the US. Plus, of course, the US is (or thinks
> it is) completely self-sufficient. Most of its inhabitants have never left
> the US, nor had to seriously deal with other cultures. They simply have no
> REASON to learn a different system, even if that system is simpler to use.

Good point.


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

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