The SIL screws up the ISO language codes for Aymara

I have often thought that my own drive to be an evangelist for free software, environmentalism, pacifism, cultural rights, and so many other worthy causes springs from my religious upbringing. To be more specific, it springs from watching my parents apply their religious beliefs to causes of social justice.

Two of the most inspiring people who I know are Jennifer Long, the director of Casa Marianella in Austin, Texas and Ruben García, the director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas because ministry of serving the undocumented from Mexico and Central America is predicated upon their fundamental belief that God calls us to live in solidarity with the poor and dedicate ourselves to true Christian fellowship with all, including the “illegal” and desperate in this world.

While I greatly respect people who live their Christian faith in the cause of social justice, I have no patience for people who try to evangelize their Christian faith to others. Every time I get asked again if I have a “personal relationship with our Savior Jesus Christ”, I have to struggle to keep the conversation civil. I have no patience for cultural imperialists, nor benighted people who believe that they have the right and the duty to fundamentally alter other people’s belief systems (and thus their culture and lifeways).

In the field of religious evangelism in minority and indigenous languages, the foremost organization is SIL International (originally named Summer Institute of Linguistics). They send eager recruits all over the world to learn obscure languages in the Global South (the so-called “Third World”). Perhaps it was their megalomaniac attitude that they could cover the world in Christianity which led them to try to list every language known to humankind, with its own 2 or now 3 letter code. Over time these codes became so commonly used, that they spread into other fields. Perhaps it was only natural that these codes would be picked up by the programmers of the world, because they are as a rule the type of people who like like conciseness, standardization, and universality. These traits admixed with their general cluelessness about the conceits of cultural universality made the SIL language codes into the standard method of identifying languages in computer software. Even the ISO got into the act, since their modus operandi is to ratify standards which have become de facto and see common usage.

Thus, we have a Christian evangelization organization in charge of assigning language codes to the many tongues of the world. Now there are Christian organizations whose scholarship is highly regarded (e.g., most Jesuits, the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, etc.), but the type of people who are attracted to “evangelization” are often better proselytizers than scholars. Some of the information found on the SIL website and its subsidiary is up-to-date, but some of it is antiquated and occasionally downright wrong. When the SIL has people working in a particular language, the information is usually reliable, although the SIL people have a tendency to be out-of-step with current scholarship and to push orthographies which others find exasperating (e.g., See Paul Heggarty’s review of David John Weber’s Rimaycuna – Quechua De Huánuco) or insulting (e.g., the Mapuche reaction to the SIL alphabet for their language). In areas, where they don’t have people on the ground, however, their information can be very spotty, and should not be trusted.

In the case of Aymara, all their information was screwed-up. I have submitted 4 forms to clear up the problem, but it should be a warning to all computer programmers to not place much trust in the SIL, and consequently the language codes approved by the ISO. To see my efforts to straighten out the codes, see:

It took me almost a week of hunting down sources to clear up the SIL screw-up, so I could document why they need to change their language codes. So I now take their incompetence personally, especially when we are talking about a language with over 2 million speakers, not a dying language with a dozen speakers in the middle of a remote jungle. Their bungling cause our two Aymara translations to be rejected by the AbiWord developers, since there wasn’t an available ISO code for the two dialects of Aymara found in AbiWord. Now I will have to wait until January 2008 for new codes to be incorporated, and that means so much more time until Aymara gets incorporated into AbiWord.