Take note! Language codes versus country codes

ISO codesWhen working with termbases it might be confusing at first to remember which code to use. Don’t get confused! ISO has two lists of codes (well, actually more than two, but let’s keep it simple): the language codes called ISO 639-1:1988 “Code for the representation of names of languagesPart 1 Alpha-2 code and ISO 3166 “Code for the representation of names of countries”.

Both consist of two letters. The language code is written in lowercase while the country code is written in uppercase. However, both ISO classifications may be combined to differentiate regional languages.


Language code

Country code


en: English

US: United States

GB: Great Britain

en US: American English

en GB: British English

fr: French

FR: France


fr FR: French France

fr CA: French Canada

ISO 639-2 “Code for the representation of names of languages. Part 2: Alpha-3 code consists of 3-letter symbols, which gives more possible combinations in cases where there is a large number of languages that need to be classified. (The system was developed by UNESCO and the U.S. Library of Congress, among others.) They are used to “represent countries, dependent territories, and special areas of geographical interest”(2).

Check out this comparative table by the U.S. Library of Congress for Alpha 1 and 2 codes.

By the way, the Registration Authority for ISO 639-1, is Termnet, and for ISO 639-2 the U.S. Library of Congress.  According to the Library of Congress webpage, they “receive and review applications for requesting new language codes and for the change of existing ones according to criteria indicated in the standard [….} and maintain an accurate list of information associated with registered language codes, process updates of registered language codes, and distribute them on a regular basis to subscribers and other parties. (3)


  1. Handbook of Terminology Management. Volume I. Sue Ellen Wright and Gerhard Budin Infobox No. 16, “Language identifiers” (page 344).
  2. ISO 639.
  3. Registration Authority ISO 639-2.

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