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(February 2007) The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has announced the formal release of ISO 639-3 to comprehensively provide three-letter codes for the world’s languages. International communication requires global standards that identify any given language. Unique codes are useful for a variety of applications such as specifying the language need for an interpreter or setting the language of an Internet web site. For many of the world’s minority languages, it serves not only to grant bona fide recognition to the speakers, but also as an authoritative crosscheck for researchers.
ISO 639-3 provides a unique three-letter code for 7,546 human languages, whether living, extinct, ancient, historical or artificial. ISO 639-1 and -2 are existing standards commissioned in the 1990s. The new standard, released February 5, 2007, greatly expands upon the 478 codes formerly provided by ISO 639-2, having the goal of comprehensive coverage for human languages.
In 2002, the ISO invited SIL International to propose an expanded list because of its worldwide experience compiling data about minority languages for the Ethnologue, which lists 6,912 living languages (15th edition). Most of the additions from living and extinct languages were derived from the Ethnologue. The additional ancient, historical or artificial languages were obtained primarily from Linguist List. ISO 639-3 also introduces the concept of one code for a “macrolanguage” as well as individual codes for each variety, a very useful feature for closely related language clusters such as Chinese, Arabic or Cree.
As the Registration Authority, SIL International processes updates of registered language codes and distributes information on pending and adopted changes. Knowledge of languages at any point in time will never be complete. Given the comprehensive nature of ISO 639-3, changes to the code set are inevitable, especially in respect to lesser-known languages. An updated version of the code set will be released once each year.