Is the ‘Mormon Moment’ larger outside the U.S.?

October 17, 2011 | 18 comments
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DieMormonenI’ve been looking at Google’s ngram viewer this weekend, at the instigation of my fellow blogger, Wilfried Decoo, and what I came across implies that the “Mormon Moment,” starting in this case with Mitt Romney’s first run for the presidency, may have had a larger impact in places outside of the U.S. than it has had in the U.S.

There are, of course, limitations in the Google Books data that the ngram viewer uses. It specifically excludes periodicals, for example, which are generally more topical and quicker to react to recent events. What the ngram viewer does include is a way to look at the content of books by language (for French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian and Chineese (simplified)). And it turns out that in several languages there has been a recent uptick in how frequently the terms Mormon and Latter-day Saints (or the equivalent in each language) appear in books that year in each language.

In contrast, the change doesn’t occur overall in English. Here is the graphs for Mormon and for Latter-day Saints since 1950:

Mormon-1950-En LDS-EnI put these on two separate graphs because the use of the term Mormon dwarfs that of Latter-day Saints by a factor of 25,000!! (It seems like only Mormons use the term Latter-day Saints.) The spike about 1980 in how often Latter-day Saints appears seems to be due to the Priesthood Revelation and to the Church’s Sesquicentennial celebrations.

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However, even if we stay in English and just look at British sources, there is a significant recent uptick in how often Mormon appears in print:

Mormon-1950-BrEnI didn’t include the graph of how frequently the term Latter-day Saints appears because the ngram viewer doesn’t give any useful results — apparently it appears too infrequently in British sources for the graph to be useful.

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When we switch to other languages, the data becomes even more apparent. Here are the graphs for German:

Mormon-1950-De HLT-DeI’m not sure why the Latter-day Saints equivalent (Heiligen der Letzten Tage) shows a big uptick around 2000, but I should point out that even in German the use of Mormon out weighs the use of Heiligen der Letzten Tage, although not as substantially as in English.

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Spanish also demonstrates this trend, although, not quite as clearly as with German:

SUD-Mormon-EsThis time it worked well enough that I could put the data on a single graph. Unlike German, in Spanish the use of the terms Mormon and Santos de los Últimos Días has been trending up for the past several decades, probably reflecting the growth of the Church among Spanish-speakers. Still, it seems clear that the last few years do show a striking increase. Also interesting is that the term Mormon is used less frequently than Santos de los Últimos Días! (Sorry, I have no idea why.)

However, not every language shows this trend. French, for example, shows no difference:

SDJ-Mormon-FrAgain it works to include both terms on the same graph. FWIW, the high point in 1950 appears related to the publication of Quand Dieu se fit Americain (When God Became American) by well-known French writer Marc Chardonne. I’m afraid I really don’t have any explanation of why the data didn’t reflect an upturn in mentions of Mormons like those shown in other languages, other than cultural stereotypes of the French (which I’ll avoid).

To round out the information available, I also did not see the same trend in the other languages available. In Russian there was a peak in 2002-2003, and an upturn since 2005 looks like it follows the trend of the past decade or so. Hebrew, in general, shows a decline over the past decade or more, and Chinese doesn’t have enough data for the viewer to give results.

All told, I don’t think we can definitively claim that there is a recent surge in mentioning the Church at this point, because there are problems with the information. The viewer cuts off data after 2008, so if the ‘Mormon Moment’ is the source of what the graphs show, Romney’s first electoral attempt seems like the likely source of the interest. But it is also possible that the local Church presence in these languages could have an effect also. I think we would also see a much larger change if we could get data from periodicals—but to my knowledge, there isn’t a way to do a similar calculation for periodicals because a near universal database like Google Books doesn’t exist.

I must also admit that I didn’t take the time to dive into the data behind these graphs, so I can’t describe how the books in these languages are using these terms. Are they books about politics and recent news? Or are they anti-Mormon tracts? Or are they just translations from English of things like Krakauer? If anyone decides to dive behind these numbers and look at what the mentions of Mormons are, I’d love to hear your comments and reactions.

Is the ‘Mormon Moment’ bigger outside the U.S.? I can’t say for sure. But the above graphs make you wonder whether or not that might be the case.

18 Responses to Is the ‘Mormon Moment’ larger outside the U.S.?

  1. Eric James Stone on October 17, 2011 at 11:33 am

    “Mormones” is more frequent than “Santos de los Últimos Días” in Spanish — until 2004.

  2. Manuel on October 17, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I agree, “Mormones” would be much more frequent in word of mouth speech in Spanish, but for publications, Santos de los Últimos Días would likely be the term of preference.

    I think the reason behind it is that the word “Mormon” does sound similar to a vulgar term used in Spanish to denote arrogance. Also, a lot of people may not know if calling LDS people “Mormones” may be offensive to them. Therefore, in publications, authors may not want to take the risk of being misinterpreted.

    Furthermore, because there really isn’t a literal translation for the word “latter” in spanish, we use the word “last” in the Church’s official name. “Santos de los Últimos Días” translates to “Saints of the Last Days” which gives a stronger millenialist tone adding an interesting side to the term and may convey much more than the word “Mormon” does in Spanish.

  3. Frank Pellett on October 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    I wonder how the coming progress of the Paris temple will affect the French results.

  4. Jax on October 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Also, a lot of people may not know if calling LDS people “Mormones” may be offensive to them. Therefore, in publications, authors may not want to take the risk of being misinterpreted.

    No such qualms in English though? Are english speakers just more rude and don’t care if the term is offensive? or are spanish speakers not knowledgable or sophisticated enough to know whether it’s offensive or not?

  5. Jimmy on October 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Check out this one in Spanish: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=mormon%2Cmorm%C3%B3n%2Csantos+de+los+%C3%BAltimos+d%C3%ADas%2Cmormones&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=10&smoothing=3

    Compares “mormon,mormón,santos de los últimos días,mormones” – with mormones being the most used.

    Add “mamones” (slang for “suckers” and worse things) and mormones still wins out.

  6. Manuel on October 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Jax,

    I lean for the second. They may not be knowledgeable enough or sophisicated enough in foreign religious lingo.

    On my mission, we would introduce ourselves in Spanish as missionaries for the Church and then add that people also know us as “the Mormons.” Many times, people would ask us if it was OK to call us Mormons or if it was rude. We would say it is OK, they would reply, “oh, I though it was rude to call you that.”

  7. Manuel on October 17, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Oh, I see, Jimmy and Eric James Stone (same person?) are actually right. Adding the correctly accentuated form and the plural form does make a huge difference in the graph.

  8. Eric James Stone on October 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Note: Google Ngram Viewer is Case Sensitive. So “Mormon” and “mormon” are seen as two distinct words. This makes a big difference in Spanish, where group names that are often capitalized in English are not capitalized.

    P.S. I am not Jimmy.

  9. Kent Larsen on October 17, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks for the input about Spanish. I knew some of this already, but didn’t think much about it. However, it doesn’t seem to effect the results much — there is still a recent rise in how frequently the term is used in all of the terms used in Spanish.

    I also checked if lower case made a difference for French, but it didn’t seem very different.

  10. Tim on October 17, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    I was in Germany for the entirety of the year 2000, and I’m struggling to figure out why “Heiligen der Letzten Tage” was so prominent that year.

    I do recall that the German press made a big deal of the Nostradamus prophecy about the end of the world in 1999 during a solar eclipse–I imagine a small minority religion with the name “Saints of the Last Days” caught the press’s attention, especially since the eclipse was 100% in some parts of Germany and because on the exact same day a tornado swept through downtown Salt Lake.

    Of course the members of our branch weren’t too thrilled when a big German newspaper (not much better than a glorified tabloid, but very popular) ran an article about the tornado and stated that Mormons are allowed to have up to four wives…

  11. Wilfried on October 18, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Thanks for reviving the topic, Kent! A few remarks:
    1) Regretfully, a present “mormon moment” cannot be studied, as the data only go to 2008. That leaves out, for now, the Mormon-political momentum that is now taking place in foreign countries.
    2) Comparisons between English and another language are difficult to make as it is hard to interpret the occurrence percentages in relation to the sources entered.
    3) Pretty deceiving are the case-sensitive aspect and the derivates in other languages. In French, for example, you can have for the English adjective “Mormon” 12 different forms: (temple) Mormon / mormon, (église) mormone / Mormone, (église) mormonne / Mormonne, (temples) mormons / Mormons, etc. In German, Dutch, etc. you also have such variations. Which means that in other languages occasionally “Mormon” may seem less frequent than Latter-day Saints, but one should actually count all the possible forms of “Mormon”.

    Still, the matter remains an interesting exercise!

    Not to sidetrack the topic, but as interesting is the present and the near future as a “Mormon momentum” is developing abroad with the presidential election. How is Church PR in foreign countries going to deal with this peculiar interest in the Church? Just the other day there was a several pages long article in one of the most-read Belgian weekly magazines about “the Mormons” in connection with the extreme Christian right in the U.S. According to the author, the Mormons, defined as the new American “superpatriots”, have formed an alliance with conservative Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals to oust Obama, radicalize legislation on abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, etc. and, yes, prepare to bomb Muslim nations. To what extent are local Church PR people sufficiently aware of the backgrounds and prepared to deal with this kind of “news” and questions from journalists?

  12. Rachel Whipple on October 18, 2011 at 8:30 am

    I think this is fascinating. I wonder if this is a particularly Mormon moment, or if other religious groups are also being discussed more. Has there also been an uptick in mentions of Jehovahs Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Hari Krishnas, Bahai, and so on?

  13. Kent Larsen on October 18, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Wilfried (11):

    1) Regretfully, a present “mormon moment” cannot be studied, as the data only go to 2008. That leaves out, for now, the more interesting momentum that is taking place in foreign countries.

    I tried to address this in the op. In a sense, the current “mormon moment” started when Romney first ran for President in 2007 — which is what I tried to say in the op. I think that the upturn we see in many countries could be due to Romney’s first run for President.

    2) Comparisons between English and another language are difficult to make. What do occurrence percentages really tell in relation to the sources entered?

    Yes, however I’m not comparing occurrence percentages. I’m only comparing whether or not there is an increase in occurrence. And, while I implied a possible conclusion, I specifically said in the op that “I don’t think we can definitively claim that there is a recent surge in mentioning the Church at this point, because there are problems with the information.”

    As for your point 3, I recognize that different derivatives exist, but don’t you think that they would change in a similar fashion? I think that is likely, but since we haven’t really drawn a conclusion…

    As for your final point, I do agree that the PR picture is getting more complicated, and I wonder if the current PR structure is up to the job. The (admittedly few) PR people that I’ve seen locally and overseas seem to be more adept at generating press releases than the more difficult task of responding to what appears in the media.

  14. Frank M. on October 18, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Interesting post, Kent. My question is whether stories about the raid on the FLDS compound in Texas & subsequent legal/court activity would be part of the dataset. Because don’t most news stories about the FLDS refer to them as “Mormon polygamists” or “Mormon splinter group”?

  15. Wilfried on October 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Kent. I agree. I didn’t mean to question your statements, only to add remarks beyond those. As to derivatives, it is strange how they sometimes behave in totally different ways, while you would expect them to develop in similar fashion.

    Frank M., that’s an excellent point you make. The FLDS compound raid in 2008 gained a lot of (lurid) attention around the world. I wonder though if books.google limits its sources to books, since nearly all of the attention paid to the FLDS-topic appeared in daily papers, weekly magazines, and mostly in the tabloid-kind. Would google.books also include all those?

  16. Kent Larsen on October 18, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Frank (14), they likely will. But your use of the term “stories” leads me to think you are including periodicals (magazine and newspapers). They are NOT part of the data set used by the ngrams viewer.

    Periodicals bound into books (usually older periodicals) are included in Google Books, but are not supposed to be part of the ngram viewer data.

    But, clearly, books that talk about the FLDS could be part of the data, yes.

  17. Wilfried on October 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    I wonder how sudden surges in other languages could be explained by some very limited data. Suppose that in French, during several years, books hardly mention Mormonism, and then suddenly one book is published about Mormonism and gets into the google data. It would imply hundreds of Mormon occurrences for a single year.

  18. Kent Larsen on October 18, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Wilfried, I’m sure you are correct that this is possible. However, I have noticed that the ngram viewer doesn’t show data when queries are too specific — perhaps because of the lack of data you describe.

    It is possible to find out, of course. Google’s ngram viewer does link to the data in a couple of different ways (it looks like you can actually download the database!), so anyone wanting to do a more detailed and accurate study could take a look.