Another attempt at plain language

Tobias Bengfort <> Tue, 01 September 2015 23:20 UTC

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From: Tobias Bengfort <>
Subject: Another attempt at plain language
Date: Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:47:22 +0200
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I would like to discuss the possibility of a "plain" language subtag.
This has been discussed before in 2006[1], but I feel like many
important aspects were not brought up back then.

Accessibility is a major concern for modern web development, and plain
language is part of that domain. The Web Content Accessibility
Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)[2] name "Understandable" as one of four
overarching principles. And while plain language is not mentioned in the
standard itself, it is extensively references in the supporting

Plain language is not only considered to be important. It is actually
used. There for example is now also a plain english wikipedia[4]. And
the US Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal executive agencies to
use plain language[5].

When I asked about this topic on stackoverflow[6], the first response
was to simply reuse an existing language tag (e.g. 'de') without further
modification also for plain language. I believe it is important to make
the distinction because it would allow third party services (e.g. search
engines) or assistive technology to make use of that information.

Apart from that, software systems simply need different names for
different translations and as explained above, maintaining separate
translations for plain languages is already wide spread. It would just
make sense to standardize these names.

In 2006, the question came up whether "plain" is a distinct variant of a
language or merely a style[7]. It was argued that also "the boundaries
between languages and dialects certainly aren't [precise]"[8]. Apart
from that, at least some plain languages use a restricted or modified
grammar. For example in "leichtes Deutsch", composite nouns need to be
separated with dashes[9].

Another proposal in 2006 was to use an extension subtag, e.g. 'x-plain'.
This has the benefit of being valid without approval by this group. But
it is not a standard that might improve accessibility beyond the
boundaries of a single application.

I think the final blow to the idea in 2006 was that there is no
well-recognized universal definition of plain language.[10]

So much for summerazing and commenting the old discussion. I also want
to bring a new idea to the table:

Would it be possible to signify the language proficiency of the targeted
audience? There are formal definitions of these, e.g. CEFR[11],
ACTFL[12], or ILR[13]. For example, 'de-cefrb1' would be for people with
a german CEFR level of B1 or above.

The big advantage of this approach is that the variants would be
flexible and clearly defined. However, they would hardly describe real
language variants. They would also cover similar, but not the same cases
as plain language because, as described above, plain language may have a
modified grammar.

To some up, I think that having a standard way to name plain languages
could help web accessibility and accessibility in general a lot. But I
also understand the issues involved. I really hope we can come up with a
solution that works for everyone.

Tobias Bengfort