Monday, October 23, 2006

The NPOV of language names

Yesterday Sannab pointed me to this posting on the linguistlist. The gist was that there had not been full consultation with the academic community about the adoption of the Ethnologue database for the ISO-639-3 codes of languages. A secondary argument was that Ethnologue is primarily a religious organization and the question was raised if it could be ethically to have such an organization be the guardian of what is to be considered a language.

This e-mail is a reaction to what Dr. Hein van der Voort wrote in the SSILA-Bulletin number 242 of August 22 of 2006.

The problem I see with the stance taken is not so much in the realization that some of the Ethnologue information needs to be curated, it is also not in the fact that some would consider Ethnologue to be the wrong organization to play this part, the problem is that no viable solution is offered. The need for the ISO-639-3 list is not only to identify what languages there from a linguistic point of view, it very much addresses the urgent need to identify text on the Internet as being in a specific language.

At WiktionaryZ we are creating language portals. These language portals are linked into country portals, both countries and languages have ISO-codes. When I had questions about language names, Ethnologue was really interested in learning what I had to say about what are to me obscure languages. The point here is, Ethnologue wants to cooperate. Some people do not want to cooperate for ideological reasons and at the same time do not provide a viable alternative. This is from my point of view really horrible. The need for codes that are more or less usable is expanding with Internet time and not with the glacial time that is the time of academics.

When WiktionaryZ proves itself and becomes a relevant resource for an increasing number of languages, all kinds of services will be build on the basis of it using standardized identification for content. The ISO-639-2 code is inadequate. It is not realistic to expect ISO to review it's decision at this stage and not include Ethnologue. It is not realistic to expect such a review without providing an alternative that is clearly superior to what is ISO-639-3. It is clearly better to improve together on what is arguably in need of improvement than not to provide the tools to work with in the first place.


Post a Comment