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The Linguistic Challenge for Standards

Bloomberg LP, 100 Business Park Drive, Skillman, NJ 08858, USA
Standards 2022, 2(4), 449-459;
Received: 15 February 2022 / Accepted: 26 July 2022 / Published: 4 October 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Feature Papers to Celebrate the Inaugural Issue of Standards)


Standards serve a valuable function that enable efficiencies, technological advancement, and commerce. To date, there is little examination of the problems with standards, their implementations, and methodologies that could be introduced to improve utility and utilization. This is contrasted against the large inventory of standards that exist, and proliferation of standards. More available literature exists on standards wars that focus on attempts at market dominance, persistence of ‘legacy’ standards in light of newer and ‘better’ solutions, cases for and against multiple standards, and even legal cases regarding anti-competitive behavior leveraging dominance in particular standards. This, however, focuses more on the politics as opposed to presenting a more fundamental examination of the cause for the existing friction. Through applied linguistics, it becomes more apparent that differences in language, using Communities of Practice as a guide, can provide a dimension to standards development and implementation. Friction in standards arises when standards are viewed as broad and universally applicable versus being the expression of a specific Community of Practice, and therefore should be specifically and formally scoped using linguistic methods.

1. Introduction

Peter Glavič states in his introduction to the Standards journal that standards can be international, national, regional or corporate [1]. The variety and sheer number of standards would seem counter-intuitive, as Glavič continues later, “In spite of the great number of different standards, new ones are appearing daily.”
New standards are developed to address new areas of interest, such as those being created to address things as varied as COVID-19 to climate change. Yet, new standards also are created for things that already have standards for them—from identifiers to processes to measurements.
This results in friction in multiple ways. Standards organizations may appear to compete with each other to prove that the standard they back is the better or more ‘correct’ standard. Individual participants have conflicts in the standards development process on if a new standard is actually needed or not. Users are conflicted on if one standard or the other is the better choice. Companies spend significant money and risk in backing one standard over another, from everyday decisions in using Apple over Android platforms, to more field-specific issues such as utilizing ISO15022 messaging standards or FIX Protocol standards within international financial services communications.
Indeed, this challenge is highlighted in many of the first papers for this Journal. In “Current Ice Adhesion Testing Methods and the Need for a Standard: A Concise Review,” [2] the researchers highlight how different tests for ice adhesion produce different, and sometimes conflicting results based on different base conditions and variables. Using this as a basis, they offer yet another method for testing. In “The Need to Accurately Define and Measure the Properties of Particles” [3], the researchers illustrate the difficulty of particle measurement and that at least seven different methods exist to account for different variables. Additionally, “Review of the International Systems of Quantities and Units Usage” [4] specifically illustrates different measurement systems, their origins based in different languages and cultures, and the difficulties in gaining adoption for a new standard for measurements.
In all these papers, as with standards themselves, the specific problem is defined well, and how the standard addresses that problem is typically well scoped in regard to function. However, the user community—that is the specific group the standard is meant to be used by in practice—is not well defined or addressed. Standards are created with the intention of being used for particular purposes; in expressing values or results in a consistent and sharable manner, to encode a consistent process that will produce repeatable results, or to establish best practices in a particular discipline. The target user community that a given standard is meant to provide these benefits to, however, is given passing mention, if at all. Many times, it is inferred or loosely defined using generic language that encompasses a larger community than perhaps the standard applies.
Language is the basis of how we communicate, and is informed mostly by the speech community an individual belongs to. While speech communities that are closely related or interact often may share some commonalities, their individual language varieties do differ, sometimes in dialect or jargon, but possibly more severely. This necessarily requires translation and interpretation to link similar concepts and convey intended meaning.
Hockett’s (1960) [5] 13 original “Design Features of Language” include arbitrariness, which in simple terms states that there is no connection between the logical meaning of a word and the sound form (signal) used to express it. There is nothing about the word “book” that links it intrinsically or logically to the object that we know to be a book. It could easily have been called “house”. Further, the feature of traditional (or cultural) transmission supports that language is learned through social interaction, linking our learned language with the community in which we learn it.
The determination of language varieties itself can be arbitrary, whether something is considered a ‘standard’ dialect of a language, a language unto itself, or determining if a field specific language is considered jargon or a lexicon belonging to a community of practice due to the language’s practice-specific nature. Language used by the medical profession, by engineers, by particle physicists all are specialized and typically not intelligible to the lay person, or other groups. Additionally, even within one group, such as engineers, the language used by civil engineers can differ greatly from that of electrical engineers.
Another key aspect of language is that it is always changing. John Lyons (1968) [6] calls for recognition of “the various functions a language is called upon to fulfill in the society which uses it” in regard to language change. Within specific communities performing a shared function, then, one could expect to see specialization of language in order to support the more efficient sharing of information. Therefore, between the arbitrary nature of language, the social learning of language, and the tendency of language to change to suit the needs of the group needs it, it can indicate that specific communities that have a shared function and culture also will evolve their own language. Whether one wishes to label that a dialect, jargon, or otherwise is itself arbitrary to the point that the meaning being conveyed by that group is specific to that group’s knowledge.
This interacts with standards, as standards are most often created by a specific community that shares a particular purpose or function, and hence communicates with a specific language. This community therefore can be expressed as a form of speech community defined as a Community of Practice. Within sociolinguistics, there are multiple definitions of a “speech community” that vary according to competing theories on what qualities should be included. Differentiation typically is based upon using only linguistic characteristics to define any speech community aligning with Chomsky’s hypothesis of a “completely homogeneous speech-community” [7], versus including social aspects, such as Hymes (1974) [8], who forwards that speech communities cannot be defined solely through linguistic criteria, or Wardhaugh (2006) [9] who defines a speech community as “a social group with members having similar/coherent speech characteristics”.
The purpose of this paper is not to debate these differences, but to utilize the concept that is used as a foundation by sociolinguistics and applied linguistics in regard to defining Communities of Practice. Lyons (1970), in line with Chomsky, defines a ‘real’ speech community as “all the people who use a given language (or dialect).” Meanwhile Hockett (1958) offers a more expansive view as “the whole set of people who communicate with each other, either directly or indirectly, via the common language”.
Criticism of the more strict definition by Lyon comes in that “if speech communities are defined solely by their linguistic characteristics, we must acknowledge the inherent circularity of any such definition in that language itself is a communal possession”. (Wardhaugh) Wardhaugh’s views are less in conflict with Hockett, in that Hockett leaves open the classification of what qualifies as a “whole set of people,” as a “social group” certainly qualifies as a “whole set of people”.
The difficulty comes in defining this “social group” or “whole set of people”. Wardhaugh (pg 119) notes that Hudson (1996) rejects the view that it is simple to use the concept of the speech community without difficult: “our sociolinguistic world is not organized in terms of objective ‘speech communities’ even though we like to think subjectively in terms of communities or social types, even as ‘Londoner’ and ‘American’.” Further, a single individual does not define, and is not defined by their speech community, as any individual may belong to multiple speech communities by nature of multilingualism.
As such, it is acknowledged that a “‘group’ is a difficult concept to define” and thus also makes the ‘speech community’ “a very abstract concept.” (Wardhaugh). This is where the introduction of communities of practice provide some assistance, especially in relation to creation, definition, and implementation of standards.
Wegner-Traynor defines a Community of Practice as “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” [10]. While this is very broad, Wegner-Treynor state that the key elements in bounding a community of practice are the domain, the community, and the practice. Members are brought together by a learning need they share (the domain), this collective learning becomes a bond over time (community) and their interactions produce resources that affect their actions (the practice).
Standards are affected by the language of the community, informed by the culture, processes and functions they perform. The question should be asked if those creating any standard are a proper representation of the community in which the standard is intended. Care should be taken to determine how broad the community is being defined.
It should not be assumed that by virtue of using the same human language (i.e., all are speaking English) that the same functional language (that of the target speech community, community of practice or domain) is being spoken and all involved belong to the same Community of Practice. This is one of the missing elements in the standard process, from creation of standards to evaluation of a standard for use, to final implementation of standards.
The purpose of this paper is to highlight the linguistic variation not formally included in the standards process, implications and misunderstandings that result, and benefits of introducing an applied linguistic component, specifically the formal inclusions of communities of practice as a bounding mechanism, to the standards process.

2. Applied Linguistics and Communities of Practice

Standards are well defined solutions for specific problems, meant to bring single unity and consistency where diversity may exist. Yet, by virtue of being branded a “standard” the specific problem the standard was created for is many times lost or ignored in pursuit of expanding the application and use of said standard, beyond the original community and use case. This, ironically, works against the core purpose of what a standard is. This issue is most apparent in standards focused on data, messaging, and interoperability. While you may have misapplication of a physical standard, such as a type of screw, the lack of arbitrariness in physical objects makes this less likely. Thread design on a screw impacts use in different materials, such as wood or metal, and there is less interpretation involved. One may “mis-use” a screw with a thread type for wood in metal, but the mismatch is apparent in physical form.
However, data, messaging and related interoperability standards, language comes to the forefront. By their very nature, these types of standards are focused on communication using language. Additionally, given the effort necessary to create standards, wide applicability is typically sought after.
The language paradox is that language is meant to enable communication, yet language is constantly changing and evolving; therefore, impeding clear communication. Language change, led by dialects and jargon, enables better communication within a single group. However, in doing so, that language will diverge away from related communities. Standards can be viewed as an expression of language of a specific community and act in the same way. Standards enable better results within a targeted community and use case. Yet, in implementation, this nuance is lost when the standard is pushed as a common language solution for all communities in a social system.
This can primarily be attributed to the lack of formal definitions of the Community of Practice (or ‘domain’) any standard is created for. In the formulation of a standard, the Community of Practice is not precisely defined because the community or domain is assumed or inferred by the structure of the organization and participants creating the standard. Indeed, the community creating the standard is self-selecting, and assumes such of any wider audience. General terms that leave much to interpretation are used to define the target community. Some examples are ‘financial services’, ’teachers’, or ‘doctors’.
While these classifications might not appear problematic, one could challenge that ‘teacher’ could refer to elementary educators or university professors. Further, one could challenge what education levels ‘elementary educator’ encompasses. It should be understandable that standards for ‘teachers’ that are applicable to higher level education would likely not be appropriate for elementary education, and visa versa.
Even for a ‘hard’ science like mathematics, there can be wide variations of understanding and implementation, such as the difference between mathematical physics versus theoretical physics. The point being that a speaker may know what they intend when saying “math” or “teacher”, the listener being from a different Community of Practice may have a different interpretation of what is assumed to be a clear concept.
In ISO, for example, Technical Committees are created around topics or scope, such as TC68 for “Financial Services”, TC322 for “Sustainable Finance” or TC321 for “Transaction Assurance in E-commerce”. Yet, there is little rigor in formally defining what these ‘domains’ actually encompass. TC68 ostensibly covers “banking, securities and other financial services” [11]. This is overly broad and not clearly defined. This is easily evidenced by the existence of TC322; whereas “other financial services” of TC68 can reasonably be assumed to include sustainable finance, as well as the area of e-commerce that is the subject domain of TC321.
In some cases, standardization comes from a community seeking legitimacy for their divergence from existing practices, or using standardization as a tool of power in much the same way language standardization, whether German requirements in Czech areas during the Habsburg Empire (Schjere, R. R.) [12], attempts to rescue proper English from the Americans (Mencken, 1919) [13], or disenfranchise Spanish speakers in American public services through English requirements (Hall, Smith, Wicaksono [14]). This may be intentional attempts at establishing power, or attempts to solve real problems with good intentions. However, both would seem to come from a lack of perspective or understanding of different communities of practice with different or changing language needs.
This lack of domain—or more formally, Community of Practice—definition helps illustrate what the linguistic challenge in standards is. There is a need for a formal linguistic-based methodology for defining the community any standard is for, and an evaluation of the community of experts that are defining that standard.
Both aspects are required because there can be an obvious disconnect when the community of experts who may be defining a standard may not truly represent the target community. Misunderstanding and conflicts arise between communities of practice in the standards creation and implementation perhaps because there is a lack of recognition that two practitioners are from different communities, using different language, and discourse is focused on consent rather than acceptance and recognition of differences.
This is not limited to ISO, of course. This issue exists across the standards landscape. It is part of the nature of how SSO’s are structured, the composition of their membership, and the inherent expert bias and experience bias of the participants. This is not meant as an indictment, but purely a reality as a result of the function of organizations in general.
Language possesses a number of properties, 5 of which are most relevant here;
  • Communities of Practice (CoP) are groups defined by a shared culture (community), shared functions (domain of purpose), and shared processes (practices) that result in a distinct and unique language unto themselves (inclusive of dialect and jargon divergences) (see Wegner-Treynor, above)
  • Language is constantly evolving and is dependent on change and diversification
  • There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ language
  • Language exists in a multitude of forms (such that the meaning of any single word may differ depending on use and context per Wittgenstein’s use theory of meaning [15])
  • Language is a social construct that exists in a social system
Bias is a key aspect of standards participation. It is understandable that a participant in any community instinctively knows what community they belong to, and therefore sees no need to define that community when interacting with other members. However, CoPs are not mutually exclusive, and participants may incorrectly assume a wider or smaller scope of the target community without proper discourse.
Communities of Practice will exist as individual parts in a social system of a larger construct, which can create confusion. We can imagine the human body as an overall social system that operates as a Community of Practice as a whole. However, each organ and system within the human body is itself akin to individual Communities of Practice, each performing a specific function, with its own processes.
For example, the function, and processes that define the gastrointestinal system are clearly distinct from the brain’s function and processes. While they share a part in the overall goal of operating the body, they remain independent, though interdependent, entities.
Expert bias will lead participants to falsely assume that other participants are interpreting their expression in one way as opposed to potentially being misunderstood in translation to the listener’s different perspective. These misunderstandings may not be discovered until much later, if at all, meaning that the foundational assumptions that any conclusions are based on are faulty.
Even within the same language there is a need to better define the Community of Practice as it relates to dialect and jargon which will impact understanding. Two English speakers will have different interpretations of the word “jumper” without discovering where one is referring to a warm sweater while the other is speaking of a baby’s clothing. In creating a standard for a “jumper” this will naturally lead to misunderstandings and vastly different opinions on what the standard should include. While this example may seem somewhat pedestrian, it illustrates how a fairly simple dialect difference can cause wide variation across two associated dialects due to the CoP specific nature of language.
When approaching much more complex concepts that require higher level of expert knowledge, it can be expected that expert bias will play a larger role in misunderstanding. Due to expert bias, two experts from related but different CoPs will typically assume their interpretation is shared by other experts. Two experts from ‘financial services’ discussing ‘payments’ will have vastly different needs and goals when one is an expert in retail and consumer type payments versus the other being involved in institution and corporate payments. In the same vein, pediatricians and oncologists—both medical professionals—have fairly different areas of expertise and need, and any specific standards for either CoP are likely to be less useful for the other. However, it should be stated that the CoP specific standard has high value for the CoP it is meant for.
The aspect of language that creates frictions between CoPs is that of language change. Even in a wider social system, language within the constituent CoPs will continue to evolve and change without regard to the larger social system they belong to. In creation of standards, this can lead to development of ‘shared’ standards that will not be properly functional for multiple CoPs in the long term, even if tacit agreement is reached during the standardization process.
In applied linguistics, two functions enable the correction and translation of language between speech communities. Repair is the process where two speakers discover a language problem and actively seek to resolve this. In the case of the “jumper” previously, after some discourse, one speaker will discover through other clues that their interpretation of “jumper” differs. This will likely occur when trying to standardize the number of limbs to be covered or length requirements. A resulting conversation will then be a process of corrective action to explain the details that are different in the two language interpretations.
Accommodation is a function where one speaker accepts the second speaker’s expression, even though it is not native to them, and proceeds to use the opposing language to enable communication. Thus, they ‘accommodate’ the non-native language and translates internally. These are both very simplistic explanations of two aspects of discourse, but are useful to look at differences in language between communities of practice without delving too deep into pragmatics (Austin, 1962).
The concept of meaning in context (i.e., pragmatics) is relevant to discussion of language variety between communities, as the community of practice itself is one of the variables in providing context and intention in meaning. In financial services, the context when discussing a ‘trade’ from a front office community (trader on an exchange) speaks to the execution on an exchange. Meanwhile the context from an operations community in regard to the utterance ‘trade’ would indicate a transaction being settled at a local depository. These are two distinct objects with only the most tenuous of connecting relationships in meaning, as will be explored further below.
Where two different CoPs sharing a social system work on a standard, the tendency for one or both will be to repair or accommodate the other. The resulting standard, then, becomes an agreement on an interpretation that is not offensive to either CoP, but in most cases does not capture the nuance of either. This ‘agreed’ meaning does not correspond to the actual language meaning of either CoP and will have less utility. Said another way, “Consensus is agreement, nothing more. It provides no assurance of accuracy, correctness or feasibility. It’s only a valid decision-making process if agreement is more important than results” [16].
In complex problems which standards aim to address, consensus many times can be a poor approach, as alternatives and viewpoints are bypassed. Harvard Business School Professor Len Schlesinger states “They get to convergence much too quickly, which is largely one of the most negative byproducts of the consensus-oriented model and why it’s only appropriate for the most simplistic, best-structured decisions” [17].
The resulting consensus meaning will not correspond specifically to the function, nor processes, of either CoP, without added clarification. Any additional CoP specific nuance added to the agreed definition immediately changes the original agreed meaning such that language once again diverges between the CoPs, invalidating the standard itself.
For example, two financial services experts working on a data definition standard to define “trade” agree upon “a trade is an exchange of an asset for some other asset between two parties”. However, the experts belong to two distinct CoPs, such as front office and clearing operations, as in the example provided previously.
Within the front office, the data standard is used to describe executions that take place on an exchange. To make the standard usable, the definition within the front office CoP evolves to include the existence of an exchange. Yet, within the clearing operations, ‘trade’ is deemed specific to indicate the trade that settles in the market for an investment manager taking a position in some asset. In the clearing CoP, then, exchange is not an included aspect, but instead the general market jurisdiction becomes a mandatory aspect. While the standard ostensibly describes the same thing—an asset being exchanged between two parties—the reality is that the two instances are fundamentally different and not interchangeable instances. The standard meant to solve for a problem may only solve for a short period, as a result, until the CoPs diverge naturally again. “Problems never stay solved because of constantly changing contexts” [18].
The function for which it is being used, and the processes in which the definition is being applied are distinctly different (context). Without the nuance provided by expert knowledge, the standard definition itself does not provide value in regard to solving any specific need or requirement. Within each CoP, the definition language evolves and diverges as need and context requires, without any change to the actual standard. Further complexity can be introduced when a third CoP comes in, such as a regulator, and expects to use the standard for “trade” as a requirement for what needs to be reported.
In financial services standards, the concepts of “payment” and “trade” are just two examples where multiple definitions exist, based on community and context. Within data and messaging standards such as ISO20022, or FIX Protocol, definitions based on context and community of practice are not defined. Multiple definition versions exist in ISO20022 for example, corresponding to the language variety of any one submitting organization into the dictionary.
However, context and community are not included as classifiers within the dictionary, leaving listeners to try and determine which definition may be the one being expressed in any communication.
This brings us to the language property that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ language. Both definitions, specific to each CoP are correct. To better enable communication between CoPs with standards, both definitions should be standardized specific to each CoP, therefor ensuring the context within the community is properly attributed. Each specific standard should be further qualified with a formal definition of the CoP it specifically applies to, as the meaning in context can vary according to the community and use. This then offers the ability to create a standard process that can translate between the definitions and identify the different nuances and missing elements that are required to effectively resolve the difference and provide clear meaning. Thus when the third CoP enters, they are able to properly translate the different meanings, based on the context defined within each specific CoP. The goal is enabling proper understanding during communication between CoPs while preserving functionality necessary within the individual CoPs.

3. Applying CoPs in Standards

This is not to say that all standards that exist without proper CoP attribution are problematic. As noted, standards for physical objects will naturally have less language and community of practice related ambiguity. However, all standards would present more utility, and clarity, if the exercise was undertaken to formally define the target CoP any standard should apply to, and within what context. Where more than one CoP is identified, this would highlight where accommodations were made and that further work to more precisely define the standard may be needed to account for differences in interpretation that would result in different results or implementations based on CoP. This may result in two different, if similar, standards that are more informative and appropriate for use.
A pitfall for standards many times comes not during the standardization process, but after. When a standard exists, there are two potential pitfalls. First is the experts and standard organization that produced the standard seek to promote its use beyond what the original scope may have been. Second, when in search of a solution, many times a standard that seems ‘close enough’ is chosen with the assumption that the alternatives (creating a new solution or validating ad hoc solutions that exist) are either more difficult, or do not have the political support that a solution carrying the label of ‘official standard’ carries.
The root of the problem may partially exist with the use of the word “standard” itself without qualification of what and who the standard is for. The accepted definitions of “standard” speak to something that is “regularly and widely used” [19], “something established…as a model”, and exhibiting “a level of quality” [20]. There is then an assumption that in choosing a “standard” that the choice will experience less friction or resistance, with the onus on those arguing against the standard.
The problem of implementing standards, especially standards focused on interoperability, is not a new phenomenon. Egyedi and Dahanayake, in “Difficulties Implementing Standards” [21] allude to the problem of multiple CoPs as an issue; “The ideal of democratic, consensus-oriented decision making more or less solicits political compromises in committee standardisation. This can result in a standard which includes several options, or in intentional vagueness in the way a standard is formulated so that opposing parties can rally behind it)”.
In regard to implementation, Egyedi and Dahanayake observe: “Indeed, such outcomes are a natural consequence of the formal standards bodies’ past emphasis on their guardianship of the quality of the standards process (voluntary consensus process), rather than on features of the standard or on standards implementability”. Indicating that implementation is not a concern during the standards creation process, but only that a proper consensus process has been followed such that the standard will be amenable to as wide an audience as possible.
Egyedi and Dahanayake therefore promote that idea that standards include implementation-specific details. Though they do not expand further on what would be needed to create the context specific to implementation details. Matthew J. Everett notes “Developing standards and test requirements is difficult, as it involves coming to consensus with a group of people with different backgrounds, interests, and motivations. It is essential that standardization groups begin with a clear agreement on the purpose of whatever they are developing” [22]. Here, is where the introduction of the CoP the standard is meant for, and for what purpose would begin to provide fruit. At the same time, participants need to be aware to not confuse the community of standards practitioners with the target community of practice a standard is being developed for.
The ambiguity created by implementation-agnostic standards works against what standards are meant to achieve. The desire to include as many perspectives as possible to ensure rigor in any standard in many ways works against the end goal by pitting experts against experts without the guiding principle of which expert community the standard should satisfy. Expert bias results in the political process of consensus unintentionally generating ambiguity in lieu of one set of experts deferring to another, which is a common issue with collective decision making. Experts will commonly extend their opinion beyond their core area of their expertise when involved in collective decision making. When experts from multiple Communities of Practice are involved in a collective decision making process where only one group has the core expertise, the irony is the experts that should be deferred to are in the minority and overruled.
Therefore, the research and literature available around the problem with standards is lacking, though in what is available, there is a common theme regarding the lack of clear agreement on context that surrounds the purpose and intent of any standard. Additionally, while potential remedies have pointed to providing those aspects, no formal methodology for doing so is proposed.
Although better defining groups through communities of practice may seem a linguistically arbitrary designation, it can provide a counterbalance to the consensus process where all context is removed, unintentionally or not. As with the examples in ISO20022, providing a simple dictionary with no language context that a community of practice designation can provide leads to ambiguity resulting in misunderstanding and errors. As there is no framework for defining context and community, there is no discourse that can take place to repair language error in these data standards.

4. Conclusions

To date, there is little examination of the problems with standards, their implementations, and methodologies that could be introduced to improve utility and utilization. This is contrasted against the large inventory of standards that exist, and the more available literature on standards wars that focus on attempts at market dominance, persistence of ‘legacy’ standards in light of newer and ‘better’ solutions, cases for and against multiple standards [23], and even legal cases [24,25] regarding anti-competitive behavior leveraging dominance in particular standards.
If we consider standards an expression of language, however, there is a potential path towards a formal, though still subjective, methodology to examining, evaluating, and developing standards through an applied linguistics lens. In human language, the control and imposition of language has been and continues to be used as a political tool [26]. This aligns with the issues seen within the standards world.
There are competing goals. There is the desire to simplify complex problems across a broad population without breaking down into component parts. A semi-democratic consensus process is used to resolve the inherent political aims of potentially dominant individuals or companies in any standardization process. The need to interoperate and communicate across different groups, with different goals, but that need to work together within a larger social system create issues in the collective decision making process with multiple experts involved. Finally, standards setting organizations themselves desire relevance through the promulgation and use of their standards, without regard to implementation or appropriateness based on formal use case analysis.
Many facades are created to provide an illusion of standardization. The use of English and French as required language for standard document publication simplifies drafting and publishing but ignores the fact that non-speakers still translate those back into their own native language. The lack of implementation considerations, or formal definition of the community the standard is for, results in use of a standard as a solution for things it was not intended. The impact is that the standard is misinterpreted and the solution does not conform to the intent of the standard, degrading and diverging the standard from its specified definition and purpose.
There is no question that standards provide significant value to the world and create a foundation for rapid advancement of knowledge and technology. However, in the pursuit of standards, the very important step of defining the community the standard is for, and the specific use and implementation goes ignored.
Diversity is important, but it should not be at the cost of greater authority provided to those that are not experts in the community the standard is meant for. Nor should one community expect to define another community. Understanding of other communities must come from interaction and discourse prior to development of any standard. Broad classification serves to only ignore important nuances—and results in a lack of rigor in exposing foundation level misunderstandings or differences in perspectives.
The literature on why we have these problems with standards is admittedly bare. We can look to behavior, culture, and humanistic tendencies such as politics as the main culprits—all aspects not examined in standards. There are policies and procedures that attempt to mitigate these forces in different SSO’s, but they do not directly address identifying and resolving them.
Additionally, someone will always find a “better” way to do something, which will lead to a new standard. If there is not full agreement that this new standard should be used and all others be abandoned, divergence will occur—much like language itself.
The reality is that most new standards offering a better solution provide a better solution for a particular community. However, without this formally captured, properly identified, and continuously revisited and revised, the “problem” with multiple standards “for the same thing” will continue to persist, standards will be misused and diverge from their primary intent, and the politics of control through standards endorsement and abuse will continue.
Use of an applied linguistics methodology can provide a significant boost to the standards process. Clearly identifying and documenting the CoPs involved in a standard development not only gives clarity to later implementation and use case, but it can formally expose potential political, cultural, and behavioral conflicts through an agnostic process. Formally understanding the CoP or CoPs that are the target community for the standard also can highlight where expertise may be lacking, or counter expert bias.
The end goal is to provide a method, through applied linguistics, to understand and resolve issues regarding seemingly duplicative standards, prevent the misapplication and ‘scope creep’ of standards, and create a better overall development process through a formal definition of community, context, and use case.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Robinson, R.C. The Linguistic Challenge for Standards. Standards 2022, 2, 449-459.

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Robinson RC. The Linguistic Challenge for Standards. Standards. 2022; 2(4):449-459.

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Robinson, Richard C. 2022. "The Linguistic Challenge for Standards" Standards 2, no. 4: 449-459.

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