Pieter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel, 1563
In an excerpt from her new book published in The Forward last month, Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse notes that Jews have received 12 of the 105 Nobel Prizes in Literature, writing in seven languages (German, French, Russian, English, Hungarian, Hebrew, and Yiddish).
"Beyond the disproportionate number of Jewish recipients," Wisse wrote,"there are three unusual aspects of this statistic: The multiple languages in which Jews wrote; that there were winners in two Jewish languages; and that one of those languages was Hebrew, which no modern Jewish community had spoken before 1900."
Observers seem to track the nations, not the languages, of the 105 Nobel-winning writers. Yet parsing the list of 25 languages that they wrote in turns up many other gems of disproportion.
For instance, more Scandinavians (13) than Jews (12) have received a Nobel, representing four of six Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic). More dramatically, more writers of English (27) have received awards than writers of other languages; French is second, with 13 awards, then German (12), and Spanish (10). This may reflect the global status (and the colonial legacy) of English and Spanish; French once had such status, too, though all the French winners so far have been French citizens, Belgian citizens, or Samuel Beckett. Only two winners wrote in languages that aren;t attached to a nation, Yiddish and Occitan (which is a regional language spoke in the Provence region of France).
It's worth noting that a large number of recipients (31) wrote in Romance languages, the linguistic descendants of Latin, more than you'd expect from the relatively small number of these languages and the global population of people who speak them. Of the top 20 languages spoken in the world, ranked by the number of native speakers, only four Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian are Romance languages. The Nobels are even more skewed toward Germanic launguages. Fifty-one winners wrote in Germanic languages, only two of which (English and German) are in the world's top 20.
If you look at the writing systems the Nobel winners used, that's also out of balance. Ninety-two winners wrote in the Roman alphabet, which is used to represent fewer native languages in the world than other writing systems like Chinese, Arabic, Cyrillic, and Devanagari. Fourteen Nobel winners used other writing systems were used by Nobel winners, the most in Cyrillic (by five Russians and the Serbo-Croat Ivo Andrić). Given the Internet, other technology, and the global status of English, it's probably true, though, that most people in the world who can read know the Roman alphabet.
To find a breakdown that begins to seem fair, you have to go so broadly as to break down the winners by language families. More recipients of Nobel prizes wrote in Indo-European languages (97) than in non-Indo-European languages (eight), which were Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, and Hebrew. Yet even though Indo-European languages make up a major group of languages, they dominate the awards to an extreme.
Parsing this list of languages so assiduously reveals one thing: there's nothing proportionate about any of it. The winners have overwhelmingly been Europeans who use the Roman alphabet to write their Romance or Germanic languages. To the degree that such writers were also Jewish, they rode the coattails of this larger trend. In a similar way, it's not conceivable that the Scandinavians are overwhelmingly more verbally transcendent, or that Germanic languages inherently produce better literature, or that the history of Indo-European languages makes them essentially more Nobel-worthy. Using the Nobel prize list to show the literary or linguistic prowess of any particular group (as Ruth Wisse does for Jews in her essay) is akin to judging human appetites from the menu at a sushi restaurant.
The Nobel is to world literature what the World Series is to world baseball: a slice of literature that's very, very good, from writers who are very, very good, but that is, in the end, unrepresentative. Of course, nothing says they have to be representative. When an Asian country starts handing out prestigious prizes in literature to world writers, no one will be especially surprised if the prizes favor Asian writers, or those who don;t write with the Roman alphabet.
It's too soon to tell, but maybe things are changing in Stockholm: In the last ten years, a third of the recipients have written in non-Indo-European languages, almost one-half of those since the awards were first presented in 1901. If that change is real, it might become harder and harder for some of us to share something with the languages of the writers who win. Even if it's not, it shows how wrapping a Nobel around Babel the world in all its linguistic diversity has always been a monumental task.
Michael Erard is the author of Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.