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Development of ISO 639-2

In 1998, after nine years of development, ISO 639-2: Codes for the representation of names of languages: alpha-3 codes, developed by the TC37/SC2-TC46/SC4 Joint Working Group (JWG) of the International Organization for Standardization was approved. Work on the standard, a list of three-character language codes, was initiated in 1989 because of the inadequacy of the ISO two-character code list (Codes for the representation of names of languages alpha-2 code) to represent a sufficient number of languages for bibliographic and terminology needs. The newly approved list is based on the MARC Code List for Languages and attempts to resolve differences between bibliographic users and users interested in terminology applications. Over the years several Committee Drafts and then Draft International Standards were submitted and balloted. The US provided the convener of the ISO JWG, John Byrum, chief of the Regional and Cooperative Cataloging Division, with technical assistance from Rebecca Guenther, Network Development and MARC Standards Office, and Millicent Wewerka, Cataloging Policy and Support Office.

Early in the effort the developers agreed that an attempt should be made to make the codes in ISO 639-2 consistent with those in ISO 639-1, a 2-character code list used by terminologists. However, in the development of the standard there was considerable difficulty over the choice of codes, since the bibliographic community had a well-established and widely used list (based on the MARC language code list) that was not always compatible with ISO 639-1. As a necessary compromise between the terminology community and the bibliographic community, which has used its codes for many years in millions of bibliographic records, the Joint Working Group agreed to standardize two sets of codes, one for bibliographic applications (ISO 639-2/B) and one for terminology applications (ISO 639-2/T). The two sets are different only in twenty-three language codes over the 464 codes in the list.

The U.S. national standard Z39.53 (Codes for the Representation of Languages for Information Interchange) and the MARC Code List for Languages are in the process of revision for consistency with the international standard. The Library of Congress has been designated the Registration Authority for ISO 639-2; after initial publication of the ISO list, future development of the list will be processed and reviewed by LC with guidance from the ISO Joint Advisory Committee (ISO 639/RA-JAC).

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October 18, 2010