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What Is a Language Code?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2014
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A language code is an attempt to codify all languages of the world, as well as those language’s major dialects in a short, codified form. The objective is for any language to be identifiable as a simple letter code rather than having to be spelled out in full. The idea of the language code is similar to the adoption of three-letter short forms for countries across the world, which turns England into ENG and Wales into WAL.

The Library of Congress in the United States is one such organization to codify languages from across the world. While it demonstrates a noble attempt to create a language code, it also demonstrates many of the problems with trying to do so. For example, English is naturally condensed to ENG. It, however, then lists Middle English as ENM and Old English as ANG. The latter two codes would make little sense to most academics and a good number of non-academics. This is because the more common codes for Middle English and Old English are ME and OE, respectively.

The problem with language codes is that many nations, as well as organizations and academics, use different codes for the same languages. This has led to a patchwork of confusing acronyms that are only heightened by linguistic and political considerations. The lack of a common code means that documents on the same topic could cause confusion by using different codes.

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Another question is whether to differentiate between versions of the same language as spoken in different countries. This means deciding whether to differentiate between British English and American English. It also raises the question of whether to differentiate between the national dialect and regional dialects. For example, the difference between Queens English in England and Scots English or Scouse, as spoken in Liverpool, could be codified. The Library of Congress code does not differentiate, but the Microsoft® language code does.

A solution to the problem would be to create a unified language code. This would be a code accepted by all nations and peoples of the world, whatever their language. There are, however, a number of problems to be overcome to create this.

First, no one nation should have the power to decide, as there will naturally be conflicts. Second, the code would have to take into account the different languages themselves and how each language describes itself. Third, there is the problem of different alphabets.

The code would have to take into account a nation's or dialect’s wish to have a separate code. This could be done by having a general code for the language, then adding a hyphen and a country or dialect code. This could turn American English into AM-ENG or ENG-AM. One question that would need considering is whether the nation or group that birthed the language has the right for its language code to be the simple language code, thus turning the code for British English into ENG rather than UK-ENG or ENG-ENG.

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