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ISO 639-2:1998(en)
Codes for the representation of names of languages — Part 2: Alpha-3 code
Table of contents
1 Scope
2 Normative reference
3 Definitions
4 Language codes
4.1 Form of the language codes
4.2 Registration of new language codes
4.3 Application of language codes
4.4 Application of the country code
5 Structure of the list of language codes
Annex A Procedures for the Registration Authority and Registration Authorities Advisory Committee ISO 639
A.1 Registration Authority ISO 639-2/RA
A.2 Responsibilities of the Registration Authority
A.3 Joint Advisory Committee ISO 639/RA-JAC
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ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies (ISO member bodies). The work of preparing International Standards is normally carried out through ISO technical committees. Each member body interested in a subject for which a technical committee has been established has the right to be represented on that committee. International organizations, governmental and non-governmental, in liaison with ISO, also take part in the work. ISO collaborates closely with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) on all matters of electrotechnical standardization.
Draft International Standards adopted by the technical committees are circulated to the member bodies for voting. Publication as an International Standard requires approval by at least 75 % of the member bodies casting a vote.
International Standard ISO 639-2 was prepared jointly by Technical Committees ISO/TC 37, Terminology (principles and coordination), Subcommittee SC 2, Layout of vocabularies and ISO/TC 46, Information and documentation, Subcommittee SC 4, Computer applications in information and documentation.
ISO 639 consists of the following parts, under the general title Codes for the representation of names of languages:
  • Part 1: Alpha-2 code (revision of ISO 639:1988)
  • Part 2: Alpha-3 code
Annex A forms an integral part of this part of ISO 639.


ISO 639 provides two sets of language codes, one as a two-letter code set (ISO 639-1) and another as a three-letter code set (this part of ISO 639) for the representation of names of languages. ISO 639-1 was devised primarily for use in terminology, lexicography and linguistics. This part of ISO 639 represents all languages contained in ISO 639-1 and in addition any other language, as well as language groups, as they may be coded for special purposes when more specificity in coding is needed. The languages listed in ISO 639-1 are a subset of the languages listed in this part of ISO 639; every language code in the two-letter code set has a corresponding language code in the alpha-3 list, but not necessarily vice versa.
Both code lists are to be considered as open lists. The codes were devised for use in terminology, lexicography, information and documentation (i.e. for libraries, information services, and publishers) and linguistics. This part of ISO 639 also includes guidelines for the creation of language codes and their use in some applications.

1   Scope

This part of ISO 639 provides two sets of three-letter alphabetic codes for the representation of names of languages, one for terminology applications and the other for bibliographic applications. The code sets are the same except for twenty-five languages that have variant language codes because of the criteria used for formulating them (see 4.1). The language codes were devised originally for use by libraries, information services, and publishers to indicate language in the exchange of information, especially in computerized systems. These codes have been widely used in the library community and may be adopted for any application requiring the expression of language in coded form by terminologists and lexicographers. The alpha-2 code set was devised for practical use for most of the major languages of the world that are most frequently represented in the total body of the world's literature. Additional language codes are created when it becomes apparent that a significant body of literature in a particular language exists. Languages designed exclusively for machine use, such as computer programming languages, are not included in this code.

2   Normative reference

The following standard contains provisions which, through reference in this text, constitute provisions of this part of ISO 639. At the time of publication, the edition indicated was valid. All standards are subject to revision, and parties to agreements based on this part of ISO 639 are encouraged to investigate the possibility of applying the most recent edition of the standard indicated below. Members of IEC and ISO maintain registers of currently valid International Standards.
  • ISO 3166-1:1997, Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions — Part 1: Country codes.

3   Definitions

For the purposes of this part of ISO 639, the following definitions apply.
data representation in different forms according to a pre-established set of rules
language code
combination of characters used to represent a language or languages
collective language code
language code used to represent a group of languages
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1) Subject to approval of ISO Council.
2) The UNIversal MAchine Readable Cataloging format is used for exchange of bibliographic data.
3) For explanation of variant codes see 4.1.
4) For explanation of this code see 4.1.2.
5) For explanation of this code see 4.1.4.
6) After a period of five years from the publication of this standard, esp may be used as the ISO 639-2/T (terminology code) for Spanish.
*) To be published.