Burning the Flag – where is the language?

Themis and the Flag


The legal profession is a depth of recondite detail the Supreme Court has the expertise firmly to deliberate. The linguist I am, I yet cannot yield on a few principles.


Freedom of speech has been quoted to justify burning the American flag.

United States versus Eichman, United States versus Haggerty, Texas versus Johnson: all cases argued freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Haggerty’s case would have had the implication to make the Flag necessarily your piece of cloth before burning. It is when the Flag belongs to an institution like Seattle Capitol Hill Post Office that you get fined. ;)

Let us analyze the First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We can paraphrase, to exercise comprehension. We can say the First Amendment

forbids the Congress to regulate the matters of religion, to inhibit legal  linguistic behavior by individuals as well as groups or in the media, to delimitate people’s right to convene, or to prevent people’s formally requesting the authorities for reparation of damages.

We could not quote the Amendment to justify slander. The original says, the freedom of speech. Is there a speech sound produced, if the human just sits silently by a campfire, warming his or her hands? Is there any written or printed stretch of language to emerge from the flame? Should one try to interpret the wood or coal crackling and hissing as stanzas, quatrains, epodes? Could we hear an anacrusis?

The Supreme Court holding on Eichman says:

The government’s interest in preserving the flag as a symbol did not outweigh the individual right to disparage that symbol through expressive conduct.

Let us analyze linguistic terms. Symbols and icons may be exact same objects, without language. For example, we work with a computer. We click an icon and it takes us to a website. The icon symbolizes the website. If we associate the content, it is only when we know the website. The icon is an arbitrary symbol. It does not express the content.

If we want to use the word “symbol” with reference to speech and language, we make a lexical item, a unit of meaning. We can say we use letter symbols, or even letter-symbols. There are many alphabets, and graphemes may be arbitrary.

Wikiepdia octagon

Wikipedia illustration

Wikipedia implies that a red octagon means “stop”, even without language.

Stop__roundWith flags or road signs, we can talk about referential codes only. The codes are not linguistic. Without reference, nobody gets any meaning.




Let us compare graphetics. Without patterns for written language, how could we interpret Hello? There is no linguistic patterning in the American flag.HelloFlag associations 1

What is the meaning of a national flag?   

It referentially  symbolizes the country, the people, and the language. The Flag does not correlate with the authorities only. By design, it does not contain a spoken or written message, either.

Even if you don’t like everybody round, would rather live in a tent, make own clothes  and hunt for food to liberate yourself of American capitalism, the nonsense of burning the Flag remains appalling, if to think about cause and effect.

Flag associations 3

The Constitution would not have come to existence without the people fighting for American freedom, also in Fort McHenry, about which The Star Spangled Banner tells. The First Amendment would never have been passed, without the Constitution.


As for symbolizing language: it is a human faculty to consist of grammar, phonology, and a lexicon. As in all areas of human activity, there is no uniform definition of language. Some researchers will say syntax, phonology, and vocabulary can make a language. To me, syntax belongs well within grammar.

There yet is considerable agreement that a language needs to be spoken or written. Braille belongs with writing, and sign languages with spoken forms of language. “Body language” is a figure of speech. I cannot agree with Wikipedia on counting languages. Wikipedia does not tell language as such. It tells a language or particular languages: as if we could not count the apples, because there are varieties of apples. No linguist would have a dialect for a sign code. :)

Any precise estimate depends on a partly arbitrary distinction between languages and dialects.

Language logo


Despite such differences, the Flag may and very often does symbolize American English. It is yet not American English itself, just as just it is not an actual country or people. The First Amendment says the people have the right to the freedom of speech. The Amendment does not say,

Congress shall make no law abridging expressive conduct in association with speech and language …

Fortunately: human expressive behaviors are a very wide spectrum. Part of this spectrum belongs under parental guidance and does not meet the criteria for language at all.


I do not support the Supreme Court verdict. It is not because I would uphold the notion of Flag desecration. The word desecration suggests abuse on sanctity. I think flags are for people, and I have put images of the American flag on my grammar books, which are absolutely my human work.

Flag burning or malicious damage are not speech acts. I hope time will bring the change necessary for legislation to rule out physically abusive behaviors from the category of speech acts.

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