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6357Proposal to Expand the ISO 639-3 Macrolanguage for Syriac

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  • Michelson, David Allen
    Apr 30 7:05 AM
      Dear Colleagues,

      The following message is to solicit the input of those interested in the current standards for representing Syriac text on the internet. My apologies if this is beyond the usual scope of the Hugoye list. Nevertheless, we thought it appropriate to write to the list as a way of contacting the scholarly community in general.

      We write to you to solicit your input regarding a technical proposal we are making to the international standards authority who publishes the registry of more than 7000 language codes for use on the internet known as ISO 639-3.  These 2 or 3 digit language codes are used in computer applications and by internet browsers for identifying languages (For example “akk” is the code for Akkadian).

      Currently the term “Syriac” language is confusingly represented by two different and unrelated codes in the ISO 639-3 standard (“syc” and “syr”). We are proposing to simplify this problem by asking the ISO governing body to cross-reference the two codes with each other. Due to existing patterns of usage, we do not expect the ISO would be willing to merge the two codes into one single code, but we are hopeful that ISO would at least agree to link the two codes together through a hierarchy. If you are interested in the issues raised by describing languages in a computer environment we invite you to read either the non-technical summary below or the actual proposal itself.

      These proposals have been prepared by Syriaca.org research assistant Eric Gruebel in cooperation with David Michelson, Thomas Carlson and Mitchell Esswein. The formal proposal is due to ISO by August 31, 2014 and there will also be a public comment period for three months after that date.


      David Michelson

      Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity
      Vanderbilt University 

      Proposal to Expand the ISO 639-3 Macrolanguage for Syriac

      Non-Technical Summary:           

      The Syriac Reference Portal is preparing a number of online electronic texts in Syriac. Protocols for the publication of documents on the web require the use of a 2 or 3 letter computer code to allow the web browser and other applications to detect the language(s) of the document. For example, “en” is the code for English and “akk” is the code for Akkadian. These codes are created and governed by an international body, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization). Uniformity in using these codes allows compatibility between electronic resources on the internet. The ISO currently contains two unrelated codes which could be used to designate Syriac text: “Classical Syriac” (syc) and a broader “Syriac macrolanguage” (syr). Unfortunately, the ISO does not recognize any relationship between these two codes. This leads to an ambiguity which currently affects online digital projects and library catalogues working with “Syriac” texts. While some online databases choose to tag a text as Classical Syriac (syc), others currently use the broader Syriac macrolanguage (syr) tag for the same resources. Because no relationship between these two languages tags is currently defined by the ISO, texts tagged as (syr) and (syc) are interpreted as unrelated and may not be linked to each other in online searches.

      This proposal seeks to revise the ISO guidelines for Syriac to make the two codes for Syriac more compatible. This can be done using a mechanism provided by the ISO guidelines. ISO recognizes two levels of codes: language codes and macrolanguage codes. “Macrolanguages” are used to as a container to show the relationship between closely related languages spoken by communities “with a perceived common ethno-linguistic identity” based on cultural, ethnic, religious ties and/or a shared written form. The ISO Syriac macrolanguage (syr) appears to be based on an loosely defined cultural conception of “Syriac” (as opposed to a strict linguistic development understanding of the relationship of Syriac to Aramaic). Without addressing the the appropriateness of “Syriac” as a macrolanguage category, we propose that for the sake of compatibility between electronic documents the Syriac macrolanguage (syr) be expanded to include Classical Syriac (syc) as a related language.


      The formal proposal form is here:

      The definition of the macrolanguage category to which the proposal appeals:

      Samples of previous proposals are here:


      From a purely academic point of view, the existing ISO code representing a “Syriac macrolanguage” is not accurate as a reflection of current scholarship concerning the development of neo-Aramaic languages. For pragmatic reasons we are not seeking to correct this larger issue (though we would certainly welcome others who wished to study this issue). The ISO Syriac macrolanguage code enjoys de facto normative use on the internet and corresponds to loosely defined cultural conceptions of “Syriac” among the heritage communities. Accordingly it will not be practical to recommend that the ISO merge the two Syriac codes into one. As a pragmatic solution, we suggest linking the two codes which will at least allow compatibility between the two codes currently in use for describing Syriac.