Something I've always wondered is why companies that are based in Europe tend to use "country" abbreviations to represent a language instead of the language abbreviation itself.

Given that there are European countries with more than one official language does it make sense to use, for example, "gb" which only includes 3 of the English speaking countries?

Note, that although many languages are named after the geo-political region they come from, it doesn't guarantee it. What abbreviations would Hebrew and Arabic have?

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    Perhaps they only use codes for countries where they market their products? Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 0:45
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about a translingual labeling convention, and not about the use of the English language itself.
    – choster
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 19:20
  • It does raise the question of (for example) what language "bl" (for Belgium) would be rendered in.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 19:55

4 Answers 4


GB is obviously indicative of British spelling. Further English language tags are: en-GB, en-GB-oed, en-CA, en-US. These derive from Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) best practice, currently specified by RFC 5646 and RFC 4647, as language tags that are easy to parse by computer. The IETF tag system is extensible to region, dialect, and private designations.

There are different language codes in use, such as ISO 639‑1 which is very common. According to ISO 639‑1, the language code for modern Hebrew is he, for Arabic it is ar, and ara or arb, respectively, pursuant to ISO 639-3.

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    Very true. Marketing departments often move in mysterious ways.
    – Jonas
    Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 23:32
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    Honestly, I wouldn't expect a product package designer to follow Internet standards (although this particular package doesn't appear to follow any standard whatsoever). Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 23:36
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    Apparently so, there's certainly no point in using codes if the languages are indicated right next to them aside from layout purposes. But I sense in the question also a political dimension…
    – Jonas
    Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 23:44
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    In the EU legislation database, for instance, the EU uses the following codes for countries and languages: BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, GA, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV etc. (see, eg, eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:12007L/…)
    – Jonas
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 19:07
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    @Jonas that's a great link! So, there ARE standard language abbreviations, but they appear not to be used in packaging. That should've been added as an answer, not a comment.
    – OneProton
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 21:54

I think it is a combination of two reasons:

1.) It has to be readable for Westerners, so you have to pick something for Chinese that Westerners can read;

2.) You want to be consistent in picking an abbreviation: you don't want to use one method for one language but another method for another language, because controversy about ethnic issues arises easily.

Country codes are both readable and "objective" in that at least they already exist officially. Language codes à la Wikipedia exist, but they are perhaps less visible and well known, compared to country codes, which are on number plates. As to which country to pick for which language, I think they usually pick whichever country is most closely associated with the language in question. Even though more people in Mexico etc. speak Spanish than people in Spain, it is still Spain that is seen as the historical "locus" of the Spanish language. Another concern is whichever country the item is most likely to be sold in.

I'm sure Hebrew would be whatever the country code for Israel is. Arabic is a good question: it may be the country code for Saudi Arabia? It's also in the name of the language. The same applies to England and English. Perhaps it is a rather arbitrary choice of method, but you know what people are like.

Note also that it is not always consistent: I have seen different codes for the same language. I have even seen B for Dutch on occasion, for something that was probably intended for the French market but was also occasionally sold in Belgium. I've also seen EN for English. Perhaps you will sometimes see AU when you're in Papua New Guinea or something.

  • The illustration appears to be using DSIT codes, except for Korea which should be ROK.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 7:39
  • But language codes do exist, as set by the ISO. Computers all around the world use the two-letter codes. English is "en", Spanish is "es" etc. Is there some historic/political reason countries were chosen? "Arab" is in both "Saudi Arabia" and "United Arab Emirates". As you stated. "gb" doesn't make sense as it includes Scotland and Wales, which have their own indigenous languages (Gaelic and Welsh)... however gb is probably more pc.
    – OneProton
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 18:48
  • @Armstrongest: Right, and I think I have seen language codes on occasion (which are often just as controversial, such as NL and FR and DE). But I think perhaps they are less widely known outside computer people, or were less known before Wikipedia, and somehow this partial semi-tradition developed at some point in the past. I can't entirely explain it or understand it, it is to some extent arbitrary, perhaps. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 20:49

Because GB is the official two-letter abbreviation for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the ISO 3166-1 alpha 2 standard (though UK is reserved to avoid confusion, which annoys Ukraine). And the UK is by far the largest English-speaking country in Europe, not to mention being the actual source of the English language.

  • That cannot be the reason, because then Russia would be RU, not rus as shown. -- Also, the question is why they use GB for English (language), not why they use GB for United Kingdom (country). Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 22:24
  • Why use a country abbreviation at all? Ireland's English speaking too and english didn't originate in Great Britain. 'Twas brought to the British Isles from areas currently named Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. And where did those Anglo-saxons get their language? You can go back and back... which is why using a historical geographic coincidence doesn't make sense. Languages are alive, and they move around. English currently lives in the USA with the greatest number of native Anglophones... so why not say US (FWIW, I'm British, not American)? Or BEST use the ISO code for English... EN
    – OneProton
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 20:04

The great majority of the abbreviations used in the photo appear to be based on the country plates used on vehicles (hence GB for the UK and anomalies with the number of letters used). The only exceptions are (I think) Hungary (H), Japan (J), Korea (ROK/KP).

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