The Design Observer Twenty

Michael Erard | Essays

Babel's Nobel

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [21]

I hope that someone who teaches design assigns this article as a topic for illustration: this is precisely the kind of piece that's howling for an infographic. I'd be curious to see how someone could use the same data to support prof. Wisse's conclusions, and the authors, and both.
Jonathan Hoefler

Bloody Indo-Europeans. I think it's a conspiracy.

Beyond the question of languages, Ruth Wisse's original assertion also begs the question: How are various religions (other than Judaism) represented among Nobel Prize in Literature winners?
Rob Henning

It's interesting that Doris Lessing's respone to the news was "Oh Christ, I Couldn't Care Less!"

Another question that begs to be asked is if nobel prizes for sciences suffer from the "imbalance" to same (or lesser?) extent.

I have yet to see any list of recipients of an "award" or a "prize" or a "recognition" of any kind and in any field that is in any way truly representative of the diversity (in style, form, technique, content, aesthetic) found in any discipline.

The How are various religions (other than Judaism) represented among Nobel Prize in Literature winners? question is just plain silly, in my opinion. More than that, I dare say (write) that such a question would only serve to pollute any further discussion on this matter.

stop harping on the same old jewish this jewish that shit already. you are what you are, live with it. i'm gay and jewish, but big frigging deal. i don't have to run around telling around and pointing out how everything is so gay, i am a member of the tribe, etc etc.

larry sternberg

Well, it's all summed up in this particular line: "in the end, unrepresentative".

As for Ivo Andric - you'll have to decide if he's either Croat or Serb, there's no such thing as Serbo-Croat. Those are two different ethnic entities, with different culture, different language and different geographical location. Sure, lot's of Serbs are living in Croatia, and there are big similarities between those two languages, but defining someone as Serbo-Croat is misleading - it's like saying "he's Danish-Belgian" (or for example saying that Hergé is French-Belgian). I suppose this confusion comes from Serbo-Croatian / Croato-Serbian language (which Andric wrote in) - I won't go into explaining how and why those terms were coined, but such "languages" are "dead" (plus they were always artificial, coined for mostly political reasons - basically they are Serbian and Croatian language, respectively) for almost 20 years - it's either "Croatian" language or "Serbian" language. Andric did wrote in Serbo-Croatian language (since that term was used at the time he wrote those books), but he wasn't "Serbo-Croat".

I'll admit that Andric is somewhat special case, since he was Croat who was strongly connected to the Serbian culture and certain Serbian political ideas, and both Croats and Serbs regard him as "their own", but I don't think that solution is to coin term like "Serbo-Croat".

Interesting post, Mr. Erard, not least because you took it in the direction of languages rather than nationalities, ethnicities or religions. Thanks.

And as you say, "nothing says [the Nobel prizes] have to be representative."
Ricardo Cordoba

@Gorbun: Thanks. Any suggestions? I should note: I used the stats, language names, and linguistic facts from Wikipedia, where Andric's language is listed as Serbo-Croat.
michael erard

@ Michael Erard:

Sure, you're welcome.

As for your question - yes, listed language is Serbo-Croat (although it's not that simple, they also list both Serbian and Croatian language), but you referred to nationality, not language ("...Russians, Serbo-Croat...). "Croat" is nationality, "Croatian" is language.

noun: Croat(s), Croatian(s)
adjective: Croatian

Ivo Andrić was a Croat (strictly genetically speaking) who wrote in Croatian, Serbian, Serbo-Croatian and Croato-Serbian language (last two languages don't exist no more, but they were called that way at the time those books were written), both in Cyrillic AND Latin / Roman alphabet.

In reply to Alfonso:

I fail to see why, in light of the original Ruth Wisse statements which prompted Mr. Erard's comments, a further examination of religion would be "silly." Wisse asserts that it is "unusual" that the 12 Jewish recipients of Nobel Literature prizes wrote in seven different languages. Is it unusual? If so, on what grounds? Why is it that this religious group has the facility to write in seven languages? What about the other religious groups represented among winners? How many languages did they write in? All of these questions remain unanswered.

Mr. Erard wrote: 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. So, it seems, that Ruth Wisse was trying to make a statement about the linguistic prowess of Jews. Her claim may or may not be true. The only way to properly evaluate its validity is to compare Jews with the other religious groups represented. Are Jews as a group unusual in their ability to write in seven languages? We can only know this through a comparison to other religions. If you are going to look at characteristics of Nobel Prize winners to make a statement about a particular group (religion) then you better look at all of the other groups (religions) to determine whether or not your claims are true.

An earlier commenter wrote that it would be interesting to see an information graphic of the data discussed. Indeed! But, for any such graphic to be meaningful, in light of Wisse's conclusions, it would have to display the intersection between language and religion among Nobel winners which she originally introduced.
Rob Henning

Well, not all catholics (can I call them christians) would be the same. The ones who listened to Latin mass their whole life would certainly be linguistically different than the ones who only got to go to guitar mass after Vatican II.

As for Buddist, Jainists, Sikh etc. I'm sure there are equally unequal representations of sects. Get your access charts ready to excel .

Or please do use someone as an example. then give that robot a nobel in figuring out things.

The fact that anyone won any kind of prize doesn't mean a damned thing, as I am sure most of the poindexters who read this (including myself) who may have won so called ADC, TDC, TTDC, STA Gold Medals, Best of Show in the past is for work we rather not admit to anymore and was essentially worthless in the first place.
Franklin Greer

I'm sorry... why is this considered noteworthy for designers ?
David Smith

Information architecture, Mr.Smith.

Microsoft and I suppose other software companies,but I am positive sure on Microsoft, have long been working on language structure and lingusitics.I suppose they would like to seemoreoriental study. In germany they had a Chinese girl working inthe forums. At the time itwasvery expensive to be onthe net inGermany,so she had to be an employee, I guess.

have you never read their philosophy, linguistik, semiotics forum from 1998. It was quite the place to be back then on MSN 2.0

They had trouble keeping people on or was it off the forums that were labeled anti semites. I engaged the anti-semite culprit often in conversation. I was curious. Curiosity kills cats.

I thought talk was better than banning. I ended up ruining my family lfe.

Nancy, you lost me there.

Information architecture? And er... Microsoft?


I think we're talking about a particularly odious kind of chauvinism, that has no place in an (alleged) design blog.

Design: as in, visual communication? Hello?

Sure, designers need to be "liberal arts" kind of people (and good luck with that, outside of academic circles), but shirley this is stretching it out waaaay past our usual professional concerns?
David Smith

David Smith, please refer to our standard disclaimer, and thank you for visiting Design Observer!
Michael Bierut

excuse me, I was looking into my crystal ball backwards instead of forwards.

Well, I got to tell my story, anyway. Shirley, you don't think I am crazy, too. I lost you, TOO?

Add that to my family, friends, relatives and everyone else that I cared for and cared about in my life. Okay, my dog (scratch that MY-- in the divorce papers it's the husbands dog) was faithful to his end.
It's this damn internet. My fault I was hookered and schnookered.


You said it so verbosely...

And you're quite welcome, for my visit. Perhaps I'll bestow a few more on you, if you are so indulgent.

David Smith

Regarding Ivo Andric, you all forget to write that he, at the end of the day, was a Bosnian, not a Croat, not a Serb. Croats live in Croatia, Serbs in Serbia. National movements, propaganda and ethnic colonization from Serbia and Croatia made the illusory image that these two nations are represented in Bosnia. At the end of the 19th century not many Bosnian Catholics and Orthodox called themselves Croats or Serbs but Bosnians, and that is what they've been since at least the 10th century. Anyway, people do have right to be called whatever they want nowadays, but Bosnian Catholics beside religion do not have culturally much in common with Croats (in Croatia), and Bosnian Orthodox is not the same as being a Serb(ian). They are all, together with Bosnian Muslims, part of a BOSNIAN culture.

When noticing patterns like these it's important to also take a wider perspective to also note, socio-economics (which give access to advanced education) and other factors that contribute to the development of individuals. Taking into consideration one factor/variable such as nationality, race, color, or ethnicity is too narrow of scope.

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