1291.0 - A Guide to Major ABS Classifications, 1998  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 03/09/1998   
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Contents >> LANGUAGES: Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL)


The Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL) has been developed by the ABS in order to satisfy wide community interest in the languages spoken by the Australian population, and to meet growing statistical and administrative needs. The range of languages separately identified in the classification is suitable and appropriate for the presentation of statistics about languages used in Australia and at the same time provides an overview of the world's languages within a coherent framework.

In the classification, languages are grouped into progressively broader categories on the basis of their evolution from a common ancestral language (genetic affinity), and on the basis of the geographic proximity of areas where particular languages originated.

All languages currently spoken in the world are included in the classification. However, in practice, only those languages that have significant numbers of speakers in Australia are separately identified in the classification structure, other languages being notionally included in appropriate residual (not elsewhere classified) categories.

Purpose of the classification

The ASCL is intended for use in the collection, aggregation and dissemination of data relating to the language use of the Australian population. The range of languages spoken by Australians provides a useful indicator of aspects of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Australian society. Data classified by language will assist in the planning and provision of multilingual services and facilitate program and service delivery for speakers of languages other than English. The ASCL will be a useful tool in social research and will provide a stable underpinning for related concepts such as ethnicity, ancestry, etc.

The ASCL was used in the 1996 Census of Population and Housing, and the ABS also encourages its use by other government agencies and private organisations for the production and dissemination of all official statistics on languages.

Units of the classification

Although the ASCL is intended to classify entities defined as languages, the base level units are not all of the same order. The base level units include:

      • natural languages which are universally recognised as distinct and separate languages;
      • natural languages which are contentious as to their status as a separate language, dialect or variety of another language;
      • dialects of languages which are usefully identified separately because they are spoken by distinct social, cultural or ethnic groups;
      • pidgins and creoles;
      • groups of linguistically distinct languages which originated in proximate geographic areas; and
      • invented and sign languages.

Structure of the classification

The ASCL has a hierarchy consisting of three levels:

      • The first and most general level of aggregation contains 9 Broad Groups which are formed by aggregating geographically proximate Narrow Groups which have a degree of genetic affinity.
      • The second level contains 48 Narrow Groups, consisting of between one and 22 Language entities. Languages are combined to form the Narrow Groups primarily on the basis of their evolution from a common ancestral language (genetic affinity).
      • The third and most detailed level contains 193 Languages, as described above: 49 'European' Languages; 55 Aboriginal Languages; 89 Languages covering the rest of the world.

The 9 Broad Groups of the classification are:


Northern European Languages
2Southern European Languages
3Eastern European Languages
4Southwest Asian and North African Languages
5Southern Asian Languages
6Southeast Asian Languages
7Eastern Asian Languages
8Australian Indigenous Languages
9Other Languages

A Coding Index has been included in the publication to enable responses in statistical and administrative collections to be assigned accurately and quickly to the appropriate category of the classification. It contains a comprehensive list of the most probable responses to questions relating to language usage and their correct classification codes.

One, two and four digit codes are assigned to the first, second and third level units of the classification respectively. The first digit identifies the Broad Group in which each Language or Narrow Group is contained. The first two digits taken together identify the Narrow Group in which each Language is contained. The four digit codes represent each of the 193 Languages or third level units.

The following example illustrates the coding scheme:

Broad Group


Southern Asian Language
Narrow Group52Indo-Aryan

Further information

Further information may be obtained through the following products:

  • Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL) (Cat. no. 1267.0)
  • ASCL on floppy disk (Cat. no. 1267.0.15.001)

ASCL release date:
The ASCL was released on 13th January 1997.


      Assistant Director
      Classification and Data Standards

      Phone: (02) 6252 7074
      Fax: (02) 6252 5281

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