As we've recently seen, people love the idea that a culture is revealed by its lexicon. The earliest example of this trope that I can think of is in Michel de Montaigne's 1580 essay "Of Cannibals". This is one of the founding documents of the "noble savage" tradition, and presents the alleged lack of certain words for certain bad things as evidence of the essential goodness of humanity in the state of nature:
These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but 'tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them: for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato, that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of. How much would he find his imaginary republic short of his perfection? [emphasis added]
I'd be curious to know whether it's now possible to determine which New World language (or language-family) the "cannibal" that Montaigne interviewed in Rouen in 1562 spoke, so that the truth of his assertions about the lack (for example) of a word for lying could be checked. [Update: it was Tupinambá.] I'd lay my money against him, if there were any chance to settle the bet one way or the other.
In later works, it's more common (I think) for alleged lexical impoverishment to be seen as a Bad Thing. At a minimum, it's a sign of (not particularly noble) social primitiveness. Thus Philalethes, "The Distinction between Man and Animals", The Anthropologicial Review, August 1864.
Nor, again, does the possession of a power of abstraction, as Locke supposed, furnish any generic difference between man and brute. In the first place, there are many savage tribes among whom the power of abstraction can be barely said to exist at all, or only in the feeblest measure. The Iroquois have no generic word for "good;" the Mohicans no verb for "I love;" the Chinese no word for "brother;" the Malay no word for "tree" or for "colour;" the Australians no word for "bird;" the Esquimaux no word for "fishing;" though each of these language has a host of specific words for each separate kind of tree, bird, fish, &c.
(It's interesting to see the Chinese called a "savage tribe".) I don't know these languages, but as usual, I'd bet money against the claims, and expect to come out ahead. Of course, in some cases a core English word may be somewhat more abstract than the corresponding words in another language, just as the opposite is sometimes also true — but I'd plan to win money on the hypothesis that Philalethes is blowing smoke, and hasn't even bothered to cherry-pick examples that are valid instances of his contention.
The fact that languages differ somewhat in the generality of their semantic categories can be spun in several different ways — if your terminology is more specific than mine, perhaps this is because you're not yet advanced enough to see the crucial generalization; on the other hand, if it's more general, perhaps this is because you haven't yet learned to make the needed distinctions. This "heads I win, tails you lose" approach is featured in all its ironic glory by Herbert Spencer in The Principles of Sociology, 1893. On p. 354 we learn that
… in the languages of inferior races the advances in generalization and abstraction are so slight that, while there are words for particular kinds of trees, there is no word for tree, and that, as among the Damaras, while each reach of a river has its special title, there is noene for the river as a whole, much less a word for river; or if, still better, we consider the fact that the Cherokees have thirteen verbs to express washing different parts of the body and different things, but no word for washing, dissociated from the part or thing washed; we shall see that social life must have passed through sundry stages, with their accompanying steps in linguistic progress, before the conception of a name became possible.
Amazingly, in the preceding paragraph Spencer makes the opposite complaint about the linguistic inadequacies of inferior races, namely that they are unable to see the world accurately because they have not yet learned to make fine enough distinctions:
"the colours green, black, and brown are habitually confounded in common Arabic parlance" … The Kamschadales have "but one term for the sun and moon" …
One of the all-time champion "no words for X" memes, at least in terms of durability and frequency, was documented by Ian Hancock ("Duty and beauty, possession and truth: lexical impoverishment as control", in Thomas Alan Acton and Gary Mundy, eds., Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity). I'll quote at length from his explanation, which includes quotations from Virginia Woolf, Erich von Stroheim, and Piers Anthony:
A number of authors have claimed that, because of our character as a people, Roma lack certain virtues, and that this is reflected in the Romani language which cannot even express them. Those which have been discussed by different writers include duty, possession, truth, beautiful, read, write, time, danger, warmth and quiet. [...]
Over a century ago, Adriano Colocci first introduced a notion which has since because a part of gypsilorist folk wisdom. In his extensive discussion of the Romani people in his 421-page book, The Gypsies, he maintained that Roma:
"…have no more conception of property than of duty; 'I have' is as foreign to them as 'I ought'"
Citing Colocci as his source, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1918:41) elaborated upon the statement in his widely-used book [...]
"The word ought does not exist in the Gypsy language. The verb to have is almost forgotten by the European Gypsies, and is unknown to the Gypsies of Asia"
In 1928, Konrad Becovici [...] repeated this notion [...]
"I am attempting to unravel the story of a people whose vocabulary lacks two words — 'duty' and 'possession'."
[...] This was then picked up … shortly afterwards by Erich von Stroheim (1935:12) …
"The Gypsy mind is timeless. The Gypsy tongue has no words to signify duty or possession, qualities that are like roots, holding civilized people fast in the soil."
Fifteen years later the anonymous author of an article in Coronet Magazine plagiarised and reworded the same statement:
"Even today, there are two important English words for which the Gypsy vocabulary has no known equivalent, and for which the Gypsy people have never exhibited any desire or need. One of them is the word 'duty', the other is 'possession'".
In a 1962 reissue of Leland's Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, Margery Silver wrote [...]:
"[In Germany], where they had been chronically subjected to the most relentless and brutal oppression of their European experience since their first appearance in 1417, five hundred thousand 'sons of Egypt' — whose vocabulary a recent writer has described as 'lacking two words: duty and posession' — died in the Nazi ovens beside six million sons of jacob, whose history has founded on just those concepts, duty to God and possession of his law"
Five years after that, [...] the statement turns up again in an article by Marie Wyn Clarke [...]:
"A young Gypsy wife said, 'There is no word in our language for "duty" or "possession", but I'm afraid there will be soon'."
In her introduction to the 1983 edition of Bercovici's Gypsies: Their life, lore and legends, Elizabeth Congdon Kovanen repeats this yet again …:
"The Gypsy vocabulary lacks the words 'duty' and 'possession'. This reflects their unwillingness to settle down, live in houses, obey the law, educate their children, be emplyed by others — and helps to explain their almost universal persecution."
The eighth repetition fo this strange idea is found in a novel by Piers Anthony (1988), Being a Green Mother. [...] The author describes someone's attempt to learn Romani, who:
"discovered that the Gypsy language had no words for what in her own were rendered as 'duty' and 'possession.' This was because these concepts were foreign to the Gypsy nature."
The most recent … is found in Roger Moreau's The Rom:
"One thing the Romani chib never acquired, though, was a future tense. Maybe this was a reflection of their attitude to life? … Neither is there a verb 'to have' or a word for 'possession' in Romanes, which I suppose makes sense if you don't happen to own anything".
…[O]ther words which Romani has been said not to have include: truth, beautiful, read, write, time, danger, warmth and quiet. The first was maintained by Jim Phelan, author of several books about Romanichals in which he describes his intimate life with British Travellers and in which he claims to ahve been "long ago admitted to the brotherhood". In his book Wagon Wheels (1951) he says:
"There is no word for 'truth' in the romani (sic) language. There is the crux of the matter."
The concept 'beautiful' is denied in the language in Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando (1956):
"One evening, when they were all sitting around the camp fire and the sunset was blazing over the Thessalian hills, Orlando exclaimed, 'How good to eat!' The gipsies have no word for 'beautiful'. This is the nearest."
The latest claim to a lack of certain basic human responses or skills is found in Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey (1995) wehre she maintain that there are no words in Romani for 'read' and 'write'. Elsewhere ni the same book she states that there are no words for 'time', 'danger', 'warmth' and 'quiet' either because these are foreign concepts for Roma. Even before the book reached the bookstores, reviewers were accepting and repeating these false assumptions:
"[The Gypsy's] is a world … where there are no words for 'time' (for for 'danger', 'warmth' or 'quiet') .. where no day is different from any other" (Kobak 1995:14)
Like Bayle St. John, who saw lexical thefts as a more appropriate label than lexical adoptions in his discussion of the non-native element in the Romani vocabulary, none of the above writers sufficiently overcame their stereotypical preconceptions of Gypsies or of what they expected of the language, to ask a Gypsy himself whether these words existed or even to consult a Romani dictionary, of which dozens exist.
Needless to say, the whole hundred years of lexico-cultural speculation is nonsense, due to the simple fact that the assertions about the Romani vocabulary are completely false. As Hancock explains:
For a people who were enslaved in the Romanian principalities for five and a half centures, a people whose lives were an interminable succession of duties and obligations, and for whom possession were a precious thing, it should not be surprising that there are in fact many words for these two concepts.
But maybe they haven't yet achieved the appropriate level of generalization? Except of course for the cases where they've failed to make an adequate number of critical distinctions…