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Frequently Asked Questions - Part 2

The Flags Of The World FAQ

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The Flags of the World FAQ - Part 2
(American English language version)
last updated 24 April 1998
written and compiled by Steve Kramer [scooter@otd.com]

The following document is an attempt to answer the most common questions a layman might have about the field of vexillology, the academic study of flags. There's no attempt to provide a scrupulously complete answer to every question one might have, but instead give the reader a simple answer to a simple question, as well as provide some background information from which to research further. As such, reading the entire document through should provide an introduction to the field.

The source for all of this information is the Flags of the World Internet mailing list, an ongoing discussion by an international group of vexillologists and vexillophiles using the medium of the Internet. Some members gained the information through books or similar sources; others learned through direct observation or their own research. As such, it is hard to pin exact bibliographical sources on many of the answers. A polite request for sources to the List, at raeside@acadiau.ca, will usually get you something more definitive for use in serious research.

The first and second section deal with the terminology and abbreviations used in the discussion of vexillology; thus, it can be referred to at any time you find it hard to understand a particular bit of jargon. The third section deals with a special topic: "families" of flags, created by one flag designs influence on another. If your question is of the variety, "Why are these two flags so much alike?", this section may provide your answer. The final section answers specific questions about flags, flag protocol, and vexillology, with sub-sections that deal in depth with the flags that draw the most questions: the Stars & Stripes of the U.S., and the Union Jack of the United Kingdom.


III. FLAG "FAMILIES" AND SIMILARITIES

Flags often derive from historical, geographical, or cultural elements, so it's no wonder that some countries will develop flags from the same source, or each other. In particular, the flags of France, Ethiopia, Russia, the U.K., the U.S., and the Netherlands have spawned many similar-looking variations, as the adopting country may aspire to the ideals or elements of its source. Geography is an even stronger identifier, and often a country can be placed on the world map just by the design of its flag.

A. Africa and the Middle East

Islamic colors and symbols -- Islam is a major influence in flag design, particularly in North Africa. Green is considered the color of Allah. The crescent and star, a symbol of Hagar, mother of Ishmael, and the written form of the shahada, the Islamic affirmation of faith, are often used as charges (especially since depictions of the human form are forbidden by the Qu'ran). Examples: Libya, Mauritania, Sa'udi Arabia, the Comoros.

Pan-African colors -- Ethiopia is one of the few African countries with little history of colonization by Europeans, and thus was seen as a model by emerging African nation-states in the 1950's and 1960's. The first to emulate Ethopia's green-yellow-red tricolor was Ghana in 1957, which flipped the colors and added a black star to represent the people. Red, yellow, green, and black became the basis for several sub-Sahara African flags. Examples: Republic of Congo, Senegal, Rwanda, Mali, Togo.

Pan-Arab colors -- In the Middle East, several flags use red, white, black, and green, recalling the flag of the Hejaz and the Sharif of Mecca, who led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. Examples: Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates. Rwanda and Guinea -- Upon independence, Rwanda was to raise a red-yellow-green vertical tricolor. This was changed at the last minute, adding a black "R" in the central stripe, when it was discovered that this design was already in use by Guinea.


B. The Americas

Central America -- The countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica were once united as the United Provinces of Central America, which used a blue and white flag. The now-independent countries all use a blue and white flag themselves (with the addition of red in the case of Costa Rica). Honduras's even bears five stars to recall the original union.

Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela -- In 1806, Francisco Miranda attempted to liberate the Spanish colony of Nueva Grenada, which stretched over the territory now owned by these three countries. He adopted a tricolor of yellow-blue-red to symbolize America separated from Spain by the sea. It was eventually liberated by Simon Bolivar in 1819 and became the Federation of Gran Colombia under that flag. The same basic design was kept by all three countries when the Federation dissolved in 1830.

U.S.-style flags in Western Hemisphere -- Some Central American, South American, and West Indian countries use red, white, and blue as colors and stars and stripes as design elements. They were influenced by the American struggle for independence and hoped to express solidarity with the U.S. in their own flags. Example: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Chile.

West Indies -- The predominantly black populations of some of the West Indies countries emulated the Pan-African example, influenced by the theories of Marcus Garvey of Jamaica, who used a red-black-green tricolor to symbolize African-Americans. Examples: Jamaica, Grenada, Dominica, St. Kitts.


C. Europe

Pan-Slavic colors -- Many Eastern European countries view Russia as the cultural homeland of all Slavs, and have adopted the white-red-blue in their own flags. Russia, in turn, was given its flag by Peter the Great, who was influenced by the tricolor of the Netherlands. However, FOTW member Alexei Arkhipov writes, "...I consider rumors about Dutch origin of Russian flag doubtful. [The] first reason is the 'Eagle's Ensign' [an earlier Russian flag - editor], and the other is the color of Dutch flag then which was dark-orange, not red." Examples: Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia, Slovakia.  It should be noted that the colour of the Dutch flag (red or orange? with white and blue) was somewhat indeterminate at this time, as the orange colour may be the result of poor quality red dyes fading.

Russian naval flags and the United Kingdom -- Peter the Great was inspired by the great naval power of Western Europe at the time, Great Britain, in designing the Russian naval jack.

Scandinavia and Norden -- The off-centered cross of this region's flags represents a cultural tie to Denmark, the first country in the region to adopt a flag. Indirectly, it also represents Christianity; legend has it that the flag fell from the sky on 15 June 1219, and King Valdemar II led his knights to victory against the "heathen" Estonians under the standard the same day.   Examples: Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands.


D. Worldwide

Liechtenstein and Haiti -- These two countries used to have the same flag, apparently purely by coincidence. The tiny European country of Liechtenstein differenced their blue-over-red bicolor with a gold coronet after it was discovered at the 1936 Olympic Games that the flag was otherwise identical to Haiti's.

Mexico and Italy -- The vertical tricolor of green-white-red was first used in Italy by the Italian Army of the Transpadania Republic in approximately 1797. Some Italian states adopted tricolored flags of various patterns afterwards, but none represented a unified Italy until the House of Savoy declared the Kingdom of Italy under a green-white-red tricolor with the Savoy arms in the center in 1864. Earlier, however, in 1823, Mexico had adopted an identical tricolor with the Mexican arms in the center as the national flag, and the plain tricolor with no arms as the merchant marine flag. Then at the end of World War II, Italy dropped the arms from its national flag, but kept them for its merchant marine -- exactly the opposite of Mexico. Mexico settled the confusion once and for all just before the 1968 Olympic Games by redesigning its coat of arms, placing it in the center of the green-white-red tricolor, and authorizing it as the one flag to be used for all purposes.

Monaco and Indonesia -- These flags are coincidentally identical, except for their ratio.

Romania, Chad, Andorra, and Moldova -- All of these blue-yellow-red vertical tricolors are directly or indirectly influenced by the French tricolor, but other than Romania's cultural influence on neighboring Moldova, they are unrelated.

The United States and Liberia -- Liberia was founded by freed American slaves, who imitated the U.S. flag in an effort to embody what they felt to be the true ideals of the U.S.


IV. INDIVIDUAL QUESTIONS

A. General Questions about flags and vexillology

What is the "proper" proportion of a flag?

There is no single correct proportion for all flags; each flag has its own. There are a few general trends in flag proportions based on certain influential flag designs: flags based on the French flag copy its proportions of 2:3, German flags are 3:5, U.S. flags are 10:19, and Russian, Commonwealth of Nations, and communist flags use 1:2. Among national flags, Nepal's irregularly shaped flag has the shortest proportions at 4:3 (in other words, longer down the hoist than along the fly), while Qatar uses the longest at 11:28 (though Iran once used a flag with the proportions of 1:3).

How do you display a flag vertically?

Ordinarily, the flag is displayed hoist end up, and flipped to show the reverse side. This has the effect of keeping the honor point of the flag in the same position. Thus, the flag of the U.S. is shown with the canton on the upper left as always, and the flag of Estonia is displayed with the blue stripe, ordinarily on top, down the left-hand side. See also our page on hanging flags vertically.

What is the protocol for displaying a flag at half-mast?

Again, there is no single protocol covering all flags. Each nation or organization has its own rules. For example, the flag of Sa'udi Arabia is never to be half-staffed. There are a few general rules of thumb for most other countries and groups, however. At the order of an authority or at a time proscribed by law, the flag is lowered to a position further down the staff, usually slowly and with great solemnity. Some Europeans lower it one flag width (to respect the invisible "flag of death"), Australians lower it one-third of the way, and most others -- including Maltans, Americans, and Portuguese, as examples -- will literally fly the flag halfway up the staff. The U.S. military regards flying the flag anywhere other than at the top of the pole as "half-staff". If a flag cannot be half-staffed, it should be taken down. When raising a flag under half-staff, the flag is first raised to the top of the pole, then lowered to its position. When the flag is taken down, again, the flag should be raised to full and then lowered and removed. Only ensigns on a ship are flown at "half-mast"; flags on land are flown at "half-staff". See also our page on flying flags at half staff.

Why do you support this country or organization by displaying or discussing their flag?

Flags of the World is interested only in the academic study of flags. We believe that all flags are deserving of study. The fact that we are studying or discussing a particular flag does not mean that we condone its use, or that we support that for which it stands.

Can you put me in touch with the organization whose flag you are displaying or discussing?

No. Again, the fact that we are studying a flag does not mean we have any contact with, nor does it mean we even support or agree with, that organization.

Where can I buy this flag?

Flags of the World is an academic group only; we do not sell flags, nor do we permit commercial advertisement beyond our sponsors' banners, for which we neither receive nor accept monetary payment. For a list of flag merchants, go to the our page on buying flags. Please understand we as an organization do not endorse any of these merchants, nor do we guarantee their products.

How much is this flag worth?

See our page about the value of flags.

I saw a flag similar to the one you describe for a certain country, but it had a coat of arms/no coat of arms in the middle. What was it?

Many countries with flags charged with a coat of arms use that version as a state flag, but remove the coat of arms to make an easier to reproduce civil flag for their citizens. Examples include Spain and Ecuador.

Landesfarben became very common in Middle Europe, mostly for decoration purposes, before the concept of the national flag developed. They usually come from the main colours of the arms and were very commonly worn as cockades. Their use by citizens as decoration flags was usually not restricted or regulated, so colour arrangement, number and type of stripes were neither uniform nor fixed. Colours or Landesfarben, in their simplicity, can be counterposed to the complexity of coats of arms and it is not surprising that, after the French Revolution, the growth of national identities brought the recognition of colours as national symbols (so representing people instead of the sovereign). The influence of the Netherlands flag first and of the French tricolour later (for colours arrangement), gave modern European national flags the aspect we know very well. This led to the differentiation between which we call civil and State flag: usually a plain arrangement of colours the first, more complex, usually defaced with the coat of arm in the second. It is clear that the national symbol used by people should be the simplest flag, easier and cheaper to make, while the State flag would represent the "richness" of the country, a heritage of the old demonstration of power by overcrowded coat of arms.
Mario Fabretto, 3 August 1998

What is the largest flag in the world?

In December 2004, Bahrain unfurled a 318x555 foot (176,490 square foot) national flag, and this is the largest flag known. However, there are many aspects to the term "largest flag" - largest in area, or length?  Largest cloth flag, or a field of flowers in the colour of a flag?  Largest flag made or largest flown? See also our page on flag superlatives for more details. For many years, the largest flag ever displayed was usually accepted to be a U.S. flag measuring 255 ft. by 505 ft. (78m by 154m). It was hoisted vertically on cables across Hoover Dam to commemorate the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay. The story of "Superflag" is on the Web at http://www.superflag.com/guinessbook.html . According to Dr. William Crampton, the largest flag that actually flies from a flagpole is the flag of Brazil displayed at the federal capital, Brasilia. This flag is 230 ft. by 328 ft. (70m by 100m) It flies on the world's tallest flagpole, one specially designed to bear its weight. Notably large national flags also fly in North Korea and Mexico, near border crossings.

What flag should I use to represent this language?

There's no easy answer to this question, as national flags and languages don't always match up. Some nations have more than one language; some languages are spoken in more than one nation. The easiest rule is to know your audience. If you are writing in English, French, and Spanish to a group of Europeans, use England or the UJ for English, France for French and Spain for Spanish. For a group of North Americans, use the U.S. for English, Quebec for French, and Mexico for Spanish. Use common sense and choose a flag that will be easily understood by the most people.

Why are flags depicted with the hoist on the left? Is there any place where that is not the case?

It's thought to be a natural outgrowth of reading from left to right. In places where writing is read in the opposite direction, such as Saudi Arabia, the hoist is usually depicted on the right.

What is the most popular colour in all the world's flags?

I did an analysis of national flags (proportions, colours, designs etc) for a paper which I presented at the Intentional Congress of Vexillology in August 1999. Red is the most popular colour being found on 74% of all the national flags of the world today, followed by white on 71% of flags and blue on 50%.
Bruce Berry, 10 Nov 1999


See also: