No virgins on Danger Island

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Hey, guess what! The cricket story about not having a word for "impossible" wasn't the last "no-word-for-X" story! Matthew Izzi, who writes from Boston, is a new reader of Language Log, and clearly a quick study, because he has already learned to be skeptical of things-people-have-no-words-for stories. His antennae went up when he read the following photo caption (slide 4 of 5) on The New Yorker's "Book Bench" blog this morning:

Pukapuka, also known as Danger Island, was, in the nineteen-twenties, a sanctuary for nudism, a place where "sex is a game, and jealousy has no place." There is no word for "virgin" in the language.

Matthew writes in an email commenting on this suspicious claim about this little-known island of raunch:

This is presumably quoted from the newly published Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will (Penguin, Oct. 5, 2010), by Judith Schalansky, a Berlin-based graphic designer and novelist. (Readers can draw their own conclusions about her research from the subtitle.) A Google search for "no word for virgin" turns up hits for Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Russian, "the Dutch," etc. Apparently, the meme has been used to argue, among other things, that (1) virginity was not prized by ancient cultures; (2) some cultures have difficulty comprehending the concept of the Virgin Mary; and (3) the Bible does not actually say Mary was a virgin. (The "no word for 'virgin' in Hebrew/Greek" claim against the legitimacy of the virgin birth of Christ appears to be a misunderstanding of an actual scholarly debate over the meaning of the Hebrew word "betulah," or "bethulah," in Isaiah 7:14-16.) I did find one usage of the meme similar to the claim in Schalansky's book. An entry from An English-Nyanja Dictionary, by Robert Laws (1894), states on page 222:

There is no word for 'virgin' in the Tshinyanja language. The word Tabiweta here given means an unmarried girl; but such is the state of morals among the heathen, that this does not imply that she is a virgin. Still, the word here given is the best that can be found at present to express it.

Male Language Log readers who dream of finding a place where there are ample supplies of hot babes who not not only do it but are unable to form the concept of not doing it — happily amoral victims of a lexical impoverishment that makes them powerless to avoid banging away like bunnies with every male Language Log reader who comes along — should clearly check out the island of Pukapuka — or alternatively Israel, Greece, Egypt, ancient Iraq (it might not be quite the same today), Russia, the Netherlands, or Malawi. (Not California; there they have a word for "virgin".) Lots of luck, guys.

Seriously, think about it: these traveler's tales about Pukapukan and Nyanja speakers are predicated on the idea that the lack of a word for "virgin" would imply, or be correlated with, a lack of any ability or willingness to limit sexual intercourse. There seems to be no limit to how stupid the "no-word-for-X" stories can get.

[Comments were closed on this post after they dropped all pretense of respecting the Language Log comments policy and degenerated into an unending stream of angry exchanges between two warring factions, one claiming that I was making fun of rape and the other insisting that of course I wasn't. Sorry, all of you, but you mustn't mistake Language Log for an unmoderated any-topic chat forum. —GKP]

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7 Comments

  1. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    I think the word in dispute in Isaiah is not 'bethulah' but 'almah'. 'Bethulah' undoubtedly just means 'young woman', whereas 'almah' can mean 'young woman', but more often does mean 'virgin'.

    The word used in the New Testament, 'parthenos', cannot just mean 'young woman', though it can mean 'umarried woman'. But in any case, the passages in the New Testament on which the doctrine of the Virgin Birth rests don't include any word that translates directly as 'virgin'; they say things like 'I know not a man' and 'before they came together'. It's an inference from the whole story rather than a question of the meaning of particular words.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    "A written form of the language does not exist, but a unique project is underway to translate [portions of?] the Bible into Pukapukan." That's according to this source: http://www.cookislands.org.uk/pukapuka.html. So presumably they're at least going to figure out how to render "parthenos."

  3. Kevin said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    Well, the Pukapukans have a word "mayakitanga" or "sacred maid", for an eldest daughter of the chief who was fattened, given a house by the graveyard, and required to remain a virgin for life. Pukapukan is supposedly most closely related to Samoan, and it sounds like the concept of "mayakitanga" is analogous to the Samoan "taupou", which, aside from meaning "daughter of a high chief chosen for a special position" is also a Samoan word for "virgin".

    I mean, without access to one of the Pukapukan dictionaries, I'm just guessing, but clearly they're familiar with the concept.

    Interesting side-note, though: it looks like other Polynesian languages have variants of mayakitanga (Tongan mehekitanga, Proto-Tongic *masakitanga), but they're only glossed as "father's sister", with no requisite virginity or spiritual symbolism.

    Anyway, if any speakers of Tongan (or Pukapukan!) wander by, I'd love to hear any further explanation.

  4. George said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one): "I think the word in dispute in Isaiah is not 'bethulah' but 'almah'. 'Bethulah' undoubtedly just means 'young woman"

    Modern Israeli Hebrew has cleared up any confusion. Bethulah seems now to be unambiguously 'virgin.'

  5. Kevin said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

    Well, Pukapukan has a word "mayakitanga" or "sacred maid", for an eldest daughter of the chief who was fattened, given a house by the graveyard, and required to remain a virgin for life. Pukapukan seems to be most closely related to Samoan, and it sounds like the concept of mayakitanga is analogous to the Samoan "taupou", which, aside from meaning "daughter of a high chief chosen for a special position" is also a Samoan word for "virgin".

    I mean, without access to a Pukapukan dictionary, I'm just guessing, but clearly they're familiar with the concept.

    Interesting side-note, though: it looks like other Polynesian languages have variants of mayakitanga (Tongan mehekitanga, Proto-Tongic *masakitanga), but they're only glossed as "father's sister", with no requisite virginity or spiritual symbolism.

    Anyway, if any speakers of Tongan or Samoan (or Pukapukan!) wander by, I'd love to hear more information.

    [I have received some additional information, from Simon Cauchi in New Zealand. He says:

    There's a word "puhi" in Maori, which means a virgin (Williams's Dictionary: "Certain young women of high rank were very strictly guarded in this respect".) This seems to be equivalent in meaning to the Pukapukan word "mayakitanga".

    Heeni Wharemaru (b. 1912) was one such in quite recent times. She was given to the Methodist Church as a gift in reparation for the murder of a Methodist minister in the nineteenth century. See Heeni Wharemaru with Mary Katharine Duffy, PhD, "Heeni: A Tainui Elder Remembers", Auckland, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. (Published in the USA under the title "Through the Eye of the Needle: A Maori Elder Remembers" 9780155069824).

    I think this makes it clear enough that the claim about Pukapukan is probably not true. I never thought it would be, of course: these no-word-for-X people never check their facts! —GKP]

  6. Aelfric said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    Allow me to weigh in, briefly, as Language Log so rarely treads near any subject to which I can contribute. There's a slight mix up as to the Hebrew here; 'bethulah' in both modern and ancient Hebrew means, unambiguously, a biologically virginal woman. The word used in Isaiah 7:14 is 'almah.' Almah is undoubtedly some sort of special young woman, but it shows up in only a handful of biblical passages, and none of them seem to demand virginity in any way. So, if you're a heathen skeptic like me, you instantly say "Aha! So Isaiah 7:14 *doesn't* say virgin!" But the story, as always, is not so simple–the translators of the Septuagint chose to use "parthenos" to translate "almah," so to them, at any rate, an "almah" *was* apparently a virgin, and that understanding has life aside from some hypothetical Christian interpolation. Thanks for indulging me.

  7. miss_ada said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    In defense of Judith Schalansky – this book isn't meant as hard-facts reference work. I try to translate from a german review (original here:
    http://www.literaturkritik.de/public/rezension.php?rez_id=13715)

    It's up to the reader to marvel at the information in the text or to doubt it, to read it in context with the map, to carry on with the ideas [...] or, more precisely, to dream [...]

    For the 50 islands, most of the information provided are tidbits, trivia, often very much "tongue in cheek".
    The book was also nominated as most beautiful german book 2009 of the "Stiftung Buchkunst".

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