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:
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.