Fr, Pt, Ar, Th are all elements of the periodic table (Francium, Platinum, Argon and Thorium), but also abbreviations for the French, Portuguese, Arabic and Thai languages, respectively.
People often get confused about which language abbreviation to use when naming translated files or in multilingual documentation.
Language abbreviations and codes may represent a source of confusion, but the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 639) states that “using a code rather than the name of a language has many benefits as some languages are referred to by different groups in different ways, and two unrelated languages may share the same or similar name”. That’s if you are using them right, of course. Far from making things easier, using the wrong language abbreviation or code could actually cost you time and money.
At Arancho Doc, our clients’ projects have given us plenty of experience with this kind of situation, therefore we would like to share some practical examples and tips to simplify matters for you. Just keep on reading!
Language abbreviations derive from how a language name is pronounced in its own language
There are many ways to shorten the names of languages, which is why the International Organization for Standardization came up with ISO 639. The purpose of ISO 639 is to establish internationally recognized codes for the representation of languages or language families. The codes can be either 2, 3, or 4 letters long.
Most common mistakes regarding language abbreviations
Although ISO 639 is a well-established, internationally-acknowledged list of codes, some of these codes don’t always make sense. We generally expect language abbreviations to be made up of the first two letters of the language name, for example English (en), Danish (da), French (fr), Finnish (fi), and so on. But there are many exceptions to this rule! Let’s take a look at some examples below:
Many people use gr for Greek, but under ISO 639-1 – which assigns two-letter codes – that’s not entirely right: the correct abbreviation for Greek is EL.
Another good example is hr, which does not stand for Hungarian but for Croatian, which in its native tongue is pronounced hrvatski jezik.
Similarly, the two-language code for German is de, the first two letters of Deutsch.
The use of NB for Norwegian, instead, has to do with the fact that there are two variants of the same language, the most widely being norsk bokmål (only 13% of Norwegians use norsk nynorsk) – hence the abbreviation, NB.
Distinguishing between country-specific languages
What if you wish to target a specific country where the language is spoken? We advise adding a 2-letter country code after the 2-letter language code, using ISO 3166 as your guideline.
For example, Dutch for the Netherlands would be nlNL, Dutch for Belgium nlBE, Spanish for Mexico esMX and so on. This is very helpful when dealing with a language spoken in various countries, such Spanish, French, German, English, Chinese, etc.
If you need help managing your language abbreviations, feel free to contact us!
Do you have any particular question or doubt about languages abbreviations and codes? Please let us know in the comment section below!
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