Flags: what can they communicate?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a flag is “a piece of cloth, usually rectangular and attached to a pole at one edge that has a pattern that represents a country or a group, or has a particular meaning”.
Flags can communicate through the use of different colors, symbols, and shapes; they can identify and communicate different nationalities and ideas, they can generate patriotism and respect for those who fought for the beliefs they express and they can also be used as an alphabet. If a tiny thing of a flag changes, the whole meaning changes consequently.
Nowadays thousands of flags have been adopted to represent political parties, corporations, youth movements, universities, schools, and sporting clubs.
Flags exist from the moment men became sedentary and groups of people began to create their own culture. Men felt the need to unify all these cultural aspects in a graphic way in order to be recognized by other groups, especially on the battlefield. The first prototypes of flags are known as vanilloids. The oldest vexilloids were made of wood, feathers, and parts of animals such as horns, tails, hooves, and skins.
The first vexilloids appeared in the Egyptian world on terracotta and on the tombs of the pharaohs around 3000 BC. The first real flag has been used in China representing the Yellow Emperor, a mythological ancestor of the Chinese around 1500 BC.
Nowadays metalloids are still used by tribes, especially in New Guinea.
There are people who specialized in the design of flags who are known as vexillologists. Their work is to research the symbols, colors, and shapes that make up the elements of a flag, keeping in mind what they want to express. Every choice is not obvious. If we consider the Mexican flag, for example, it is made up of three vertical color sections, green, white, and red, with a Golden Eagle eating a snake in the center. Everything has a meaning: green is hope, white is purity, red is religion and the eagle represents history of the Mexico’s Aztecs. Apart from the Nepal’s flag, which is composed by two triangles that represent Hinduism and Buddhism and the Himalaya Mountains, most flags resemble each other and they all have the same rectangular shape.
Despite all flags are different and, as said before, when a small thing changes the meaning will change: if we take as an example the Mexican flag and remove the symbol of the eagle eating a snake, it can recall the Italian flag.
Also, the flag of Luxembourg and the Netherlands are very similar: both are composed with three sections of horizontal colors in equal sizes; the only thing that changes are the color shades, in the first one the colors are brighter and clearer, while in the second one they are darker.
Other examples of flags that look alike are Indonesia and Poland, Ireland and Cote d’Ivoire, Australia and New Zealand, and Texas and Chile. The job of vexillologists is very important because in their works they have to graphically describe concepts with mainly the use of colors: blue represents water and consequently, this color is present in the flags of nations bathed by oceans, yellow represents the sun and we find it, especially in African and equatorial flags, green can symbolize the land and agriculture as in the Jamaican flag. This means that flags are not just a piece of cloth, they can symbolize the history of a nation and how they conquered independence, their values of the present, or their goals for the future.
Before 2002, Antarctica did not have a flag but thanks to the British vexillologist Graham Bartram it now has an official one. The flag consists of the shape of Antarctica in white surrounded by a light blue background; the blue represents not only the oceans but at the same time neutrality. It is incorporated to symbolize the territorial conflicts for the domain of the land between the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina.
Flags have the power to unify people: those who wave a flag do that because they truly believe in what it represents and in its values. Flags are something so close to people’s hearts that they would risk their lives for it. Especially in the past, displaying a flag in a foreign occupation was considered an offense punishable by death.
The destruction or a particular use of a flag is considered one of the most outrageous acts against the first emblem of the state. This is known as flag desecration which is forbidden in almost every country except for Belgium and Canada where there are no laws prohibiting these actions. Meanwhile, in the United States, there are no laws against these acts because they would go against the freedom of speech expressed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The US flag is a very important symbol for Americans. In fact, during the American Civil War, Captain George Thatcher Balch composed the Pledge of Allegiance which expresses the allegiance to the flag of the United States and its Republic. The recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is regularly scheduled in schools of almost every state of the nation.
Throughout the course of history, there have been a lot of memorable moments which involved flags. One of these moments was captured by the photographer Joe Rosenthal. In this photo, there are represented American soldiers raising the US flag on top of Mount Suribachi symbolizing their victory over the Japanese in the Second World War.
In the First World War, the national flag and the flags of the Allies were displayed together in most of the countries. The message of this action was very clear: we share enemies and we will fight together, side by side, against them.
Talking about war, there are two main flags that have a very important message that can be tracked back to roman times: the white flag and the black flag.
Waving a white flag on a battlefield it is recognized as a sincere sign of desire of a truce, asking for communication and negotiation. On the other hand, showing a black flag means that people have no intentions to surrender or ask for a truce, but are ready to fight until the end.
Another iconic moment in American history that involved a flag, was on the 21st of July of 1969 when Neil Armstrong right after his speech “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” planted the US flag on the moon’s surface.