raw output

Flags and languages

By jacobo, on 2008-1-20 at 13:36, under General, Translation, Web dev

Many languages are spoken in more than one country, and many countries have more than one language. When you forget this you do stuff like language selection menus that use flags to represent languages. This is problematic for several reasons, starting with having to ask yourself what flag you are going to use to represent English, and how to deal with the angry letters you’ll receive when you use the national flag to represent a regional language. So, using flags to represent languages is definitely discouraged.

This said, have a look at this small piece of the KDE l10n stats page:

Galician language with flag of Greenland

The funny thing is that the flag you see next to “Galician” is the flag of Greenland. And Galician is not spoken at all in Greenland! So, what happened? Why did they use so wrong a flag?

The problem is that the ISO 639-1 code for the Galician language is “gl”, which is the same as the ISO 3166-1 code for Greenland. So, when choosing the flag for Galician they confused the language code with the country code and selected the flag for “gl”: that is, for Greenland.

(I’m surprised that they used the Ukrainian flag (“ua”) for the Ukrainian language (“uk”), and not the Union Flag. Perhaps that would have been too obvious an error :) – although I have been told by email that the ISO 3166-1 code for the UK is “GB”, not “UK”)

So, my takeaway message is: don’t use flags to represent languages and if you do, make sure you use a flag of a place where the language is actually spoken!

Addendum: I have just seen that Basque is accompanied by the flag of the European Union! That’s because the language’s code is “eu”. Ah, and there are three variants of the Chinese language (Hong-Kong, Simplified and Traditional), all with the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Someone is bound to receive angry email – Taiwan is a political hot potato. I have sent email to the maintainer of the page.


There are 4 comments for this post.

  1. Comment by Jonas, on 2008-1-20 at 00:04 | permalink

    I would say using flags is perfectly acceptable, provided you make an effort to find the “best fit".

    If it’s a regional language spoken almost entirely in a region, use that region’s flag if possible, otherwise use the flag of the country the region is located in (the best you can do - pick the country with the largest population of speakers of the language, if the region covers more than one country).

    If the language is spoken in more than one country, pick one to chose a flag from: The country in which the language originated. The country with the most speakers.

    As long as you’re a) Careful. b) Consistent, I doubt you’ll see many problems.

    Using Greenland’s flag for Galician is hilarious though.

  2. Comment by Jean-Christophe Dubacq, on 2008-1-20 at 09:30 | permalink

    I do agree with the previous comment. Flags (with alt tag bound to the language code, of course) are much easier to grasp for the average reader, if you are careful to take a flag recognised by any reader of the language. Some languages are tough to associate to a flag, though: not the regional languages (for which a bit of attention would avoid the obvious mistakes), but the transnational languages, such as English (ok, UK/US flag is good enough), Spanish (Spanish flag is probably good enough, but if one writes with South-American vocabulary, the choice is a bit more complex) and most of all Arabic (may be a green flag with Arabic written on it in Arabic would do the trick?).
    It would also be great if all sites used somehow the HTTP-Accept-Language parameter (at least the “first” language in the list) and could provide navigation (not content) in the correct language…
    My work page is my personal try at that, but provides only for three languages (soon four).

  3. Comment by Vakio, on 2008-1-20 at 16:24 | permalink

    You should read Jukka Korpela’s Flag as a symbol of language - stupidity or insult? if you haven’t already.

  4. Comment by Gunnar, on 2008-1-21 at 17:58 | permalink

    I kind-of-agree with you. But OTOH, if you do _not_ speak enough English to know you are looking for Galician (or i.e. some other languages which are farther away alphabetically in English from what their natives refer to - Spanish could be Español or Castellano, depending on whom you ask), a flag _does_ help. Even though only on a best-effort basis. Even if most Latin Americans are unable to recognize the Spanish flag ;-)

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