Why is There a Flag for Languages?

Gregory J. Nedved, an award-winning Defense Department historian and Museum trustee, writes this article on the value and meaning of flags.


Debra Kieft and the International Flag of Language, which she sewed, on display at the Annual Dinner of the National Museum of Language.

In 2008 the National Museum of Language (NML) held a contest to create the world’s only International Flag of Language (IFL), the end product of which is displayed at the Museum when it is not out on loan to other museums.  This is indeed a wonderful, eye-opening initiative but does it matter?  Why do you need a flag for languages?

Since languages have long existed without a flag to represent them, it is clear that you do not.

Indeed, an article a few years ago, “Flag as a Symbol of Language: Stupidity or Insult”, insisted that flags should not represent language.   Flags, the article maintains, represent countries and when people see the French tricolor they should think of France and not French.  A flag would only bring confusion.

This does not mean however that a language flag has no merit, serving no useful purpose.  A flag, since it is attention getting, is a good way to acknowledge a language, even bringing it legitimacy.  Said another way, if I was creating a language, I would create a flag to go along with it.  It is no accident that the Language Creation Society, an organization dedicated to the creation of constructed languages, has a flag.  Indeed, many constructed languages actually have them, Esperanto being the most celebrated example.  Since so many constructed languages have flags now, it seems as if a flag is almost becoming a requirement!  It is important to remember that these flags do NOT represent a country or region—they represent only the language per se.  There is no country of Esperanto for example. No country has anything to fear from these flags.

There is yet another way to look at this.  If you simply can’t get past the idea that flags must represent territory somehow (or even something concrete), then we will accommodate you by suggesting that language flags represent the whole world—universal territory per se.  Most (if not all) constructed languages are intended to be universal. The Esperanto flag represents a universal language.  Wasn’t in once supposed to be the language of the League of Nations?

Since the IFL represents all languages (past, present, future, natural and constructed), it is a universal flag by default.  It actually broadens the domain of a language flag since it is the only one so far that includes the non-constructed languages, i.e., English, German.  Furthermore, the IFL has now become the accepted symbol for languages in general, thereby legitimizing it (the flag has succeeded in legitimizing itself).   No such flag was known to exist prior to its creation.

No, languages do not need a flag but, as stated, there are undeniable advantages to them.  The IFL represents all languages.  We have flags for constructed languages now.  Could the non-constructed languages be next?   Yes, the age of the language flag is upon us.