I saw that in 1989, the ISO 639 standard changed the code for for Afro-Asiatic Hebrew (עברית) from iw-IL to he-IL. I was trying to look for the reasons for this change but I couldn’t find any.

  • Was iw-IL insulting somehow?
  • IL is for Israel and he is for Hebrew, but what does iw mean?
  • 3
    I don't know about the standard's history, but the code iw is obviously pointing to Ivrit, the modern Hebrew word for "Hebrew". Don't know why it came with a w instead of a v, but transliteration practices change over time, too. Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 11:28
  • Thank you for the info about the iw, very interesting! So, definitely, iw is not offensive in any aspect, right?
    – Carlos CB
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 11:40
  • 1
    @jk-ReinstateMonica the v in Ivrit is a bet-rafuyah rather than a vav though, so the use of w for it is not part of any romanisation standard (although it may happen in some ad hoc Polish transcriptions for instance), and no pronunciation pronounces it with a /w/ so the use of a w is very odd here
    – Tristan
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 11:52
  • @Tristan: And also older German transcription didn't differentiate v and w, I remember that I saw Iwrith in a German context (and it is still mentioned as an alternate transcription in the German Wikipedia). Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 12:20

1 Answer 1


iw comes from Iwrit or Iwrith, a somewhat-archaic German borrowing of עברית‎ (the more common German term nowadays, in my experience, is Hebräische). In the 1989 revisions, two of the changes involved replacing codes based on German names with codes based on English ones: Yiddish changed from ji to yi, and Hebrew from iw to he.

The earlier ones presumably came from some older standard from a German-speaking place, but despite the "I" in "ISO", these standards are primarily influenced by English-speakers; if a language doesn't use the Latin alphabet and has a widely-recognized English exonym, the code will often be based on that. For example, the code cr comes from English "Cree" rather than ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ (Nehiyawewin) or its local variants, and ja comes from English "Japanese" rather than にほんご (Nihongo). I have no sources for the motivation, but I imagine they decided to regularize things by requiring the codes to be based on either native endonyms or English exonyms/transcriptions, not German ones.

I can't see any reason why iw would be insulting or offensive; it comes from a transcription of עברית, which is the usual name in Modern Hebrew. It's just no longer standard.

  • 1
    When we speak in German about the Hebrew spoken in Isreal right now, we say Neuhebräisch, Hebräisch alone still suggests Biblical Hebrew to most German speakers. Commented Feb 12, 2022 at 15:42

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