No word for rape, Australian edition

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Tiger Webb writes to point out what he calls "a particularly toxic variant of the 'no word for X' meme" — from Paul Toohey, "The fight to protect indigenous children from abuse and neglect", News Corporation Australia 5/28/2018:


Youth workers who spend time with roaming kids say they would never ask them if they’ve been abused and, even after trust is built, never hear children volunteering stories.

Like many cultures, parents don’t discuss it; abusers are likely family; talking to authority figures is difficult; there may be different understandings of right and wrong; and kids may have poor English.

In the Warlpiri language, there is not even a word for “rape” — they use “kanyi”, which means take.

Tiger's commentary:

Certainly, child sexual abuse and substance abuse problems exist in Australian Indigenous communities (just as they do in other Australian communities). They are worthy of news attention. However, I find one implication of this particular snowclone (that, for Warlpiri speakers, raping is as commonplace as taking) to be abhorrent, and I wonder if a discourse other than Australia’s could generate it.

To get the obvious out of the way:

  • lack of word X in language Y ≠ language Y lacks concept X
  • this English-Warlpiri dictionary I found after a quick google lists a separate sense of kanyi as “to seduce or rape”
  • the English word rape has Latin rapere as its origins, meaning “to seize or take” (even if Romans might have said stuprare)
  • children, particularly sexual abuse survivors, might be averse to saying rape anyway: it’s a legal/clinical term
  • Warlpiri is but one of over 100 Aboriginal languages spoken in the Northern Territory. Even if it did lack word X (it doesn’t) that doesn’t mean they all do

This week marks the start of Reconciliation Week — intended for all Australians to learn more about our First Nations cultures. It is, to say the very least, curious timing from the Sun-Herald newspaper.

Back in 2013, we reported another "No word for rape" story, that one about the alleged lack of the word and the associated concept in Urdu.



  1. Riikka said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 5:21 am

    The whole sentence/paragraph is rather unnecessary and irrelevant in the article as a whole. It stands out, and would've been better left out totally.

  2. Jim Breen said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 5:30 am

    Wrong newspaper. Paul Toohey doesn't write for Sydney's Sun-Herald (liberal, centre, Fairfax Press) but Murdoch's News Corporation stable (Australian, Daily Telegraph, Sun-herald, etc.) The article itself can be found here:

    Scholarship and accuracy are certainly not the hallmarks of News.

    [(myl) Fixed, I think.]

  3. David Cameron Staples said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 5:46 am

    It's not the Sun-Herald, it's the Herald-Sun.

    The Herald-Sun in Melbourne has form. It's the employer of Andrew Bolt, who was convicted of racial vilification (and hasn't, from any of his media commentary positions, stopped complaining about how he's being shut up). The Herald-Sun editorial position is that the Stolen Generations didn't happen, and that if it did, then it was for their own good.

    And the author, Paul Toohey, also has form ( in presenting Australian Indigenous people in the worst possible light, including in terms of how they're apparently always raping children. This is a conversation they've been having for decades, and putting this piece out in Reconciliation Week is not, I suspect, an accident.

  4. Jim Breen said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 5:51 am

    I'm sure I wrote "Herald Sun". I blame auto-correct.

  5. Saurs said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 5:56 am

    Australian Indigenous children not "volunteering" to tell adults about having been or currently being abused or neglected does not make them aberrant or their families backwards; it means they've been socialized like everybody else. There is no culture that actively encourages those kinds of disclosures in that kind of environment the way we would all like. It's a ridiculous expectation if you know anything about how victims are groomed and the ways in which society is primed to encourage that grooming but call it benign while providing plausible cover for abusers. What Toohey is describing — abuse performed by someone the abused knows, the abused is ashamed of the abuse and hesitates to report it, et al — is universal. And it sounds like he himself may have middling English, poor Warlpiri, and even worse Latin.

    "Different understandings of right and wrong" is making a lot of dogs bark. A few paragraphs in Toohey is castigating a battered woman for her culture's lack of "shame" about violence. The entire article is one long holiday into miseries created (and tut-tutted) by the very same colonials who then pretend poverty and its associated evils are ingrained in a culture (he calls it "chaos") better off dead and that anyone who disagrees is enabling child abuse and alcoholism and willful unemployment. This has been his schtick for a dog's age, using children to push this one-half paternalist one-half white supremacy crap.

  6. David Cameron Staples said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 6:23 am

    I can't possibly think why aboriginal children might not talk to the authorities. I mean, apart from the disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates, or the generations of children being taken away from their parents just for being aboriginal.It's not like they have any reason why they wouldn't trust the authorities or anything.

  7. Howland-Bolton , Richard E said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 6:49 am

    “rape” — they use “kanyi”, which means take.

    since rape is descended from rapere, "to seize or carry off"
    “kanyi” seems like a very good word for a very bad deed.

  8. Howland-Bolton , Richard E said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 6:54 am

    Just posted something that didn't appear. I suspect that some system thought I was being naughty: but I wuzn't:

    “” — they use “kanyi”, which means take.

    since is descended from rapere, "to seize or carry off"
    “kanyi” seems like a very good word for a very bad deed.

  9. rcalmy said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 7:49 am

    Leaving aside all the horrible racism apparent in that short passage, that has to be the most thunderingly stupid version of "no word for x" I've ever seen. They literally follow the claim that there's no word for rape by telling us the word for rape. Is the writer unaware that words can have multiple meanings?

  10. Craig said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    In the English language, there is not even a word for sexual assault — they use "rape", which means take (as in Pope's "The Rape of the Lock", which concerns the theft of a lock of hair).

  11. Rube said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 9:48 am

    @Craig: Ha! Yeah, it's possible to play that game forever, isn't it?

  12. Brian K said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 10:45 am

    A minor correction: the Latin word is "stuprare," not "strupare."

    [(myl) Indeed. Fixed now.]

  13. Guy said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 11:24 am

    Already noted but this is especially obnoxious in that the English word “rape” also means “take” or “grab up”, with the sexual assault meaning only having become as dominant as it has recently. In this sense “kanyi” is more similar to English “rape” than, for example, Spanish “violar”. In English, “violate” tends to be perceived as a slightly more euphemistic way of referring to rape.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

    "Rape" to mean "take" in English is still (just barely) a living sense, preserved in the traditional names of the Rape of Persephone and the Rape of the Sabine Women…

  15. Craig said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 5:07 pm

    Another aspect of this idiocy is that in English we sometimes still use the word "take" to refer to the act of sexual penetration.

  16. B.Ma said,

    May 30, 2018 @ 1:57 am

    In English "to do" and "to have" can also mean sex (or even rape, though the perpetrator may not believe so)

  17. Bathrobe said,

    May 30, 2018 @ 7:01 am

    ”First Nations cultures" is not so commonly used in Australia. It appears to be an import from Canada.

  18. gregor said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

    Non-linguist here. I know absolutely nothing about the Warlpiri people and can't comment on their understanding of rape or their means of describing it. I gather that they do know what rape is and can express it just fine; they apparently just use a more general verb for it. Okay. But is it out of the question to think it's worthwhile to have a specially reserved word for rape? Here is a possible argument for why having a special word could be useful, sufficiently so to justify the loss of lexical economy. The particular word is more vivid than the general word because it is associated exclusively with rape. And a special word can be understood without context and is thus superior for use in pithy phrases. For example, if we dropped the word rape and started using take instead, we could still communicate about rape. But consider such phrases as rape hotline, date rape, rape epidemic, rape whistle, rape culture, rapist, rape victim, and so on. These concepts could be expressed with more general terms, but not as pithily or unambiguously.

  19. Bathrobe said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 9:44 pm

    To what extent is the word 'rape' itself a clear concept in English? My primitive understanding is that it refers to a man (and it's usually a man) physically holding the woman down and forcing her to have sex, or using threats to achieve the same. It sounds pretty straightforward. But the boundaries of 'rape' in English appear to be expanding as our understanding of sexual abuse expands. To expect that an indigenous language should have a word that fits the contemporary English term seems ridiculous, especially when the English itself originated in a foreign word meaning 'to take' or 'grab up', still has legalistic overtones, and seems to be expanding. For instance, only now is there a gradual realisation that rape can occur within marriage, and there are probably still people who wouldn't regard this as rape.

    You can only decide whether a language has a word corresponding to English 'rape' by clarifying what the English means and determining what the most appropriate term is in that language. "In the Warlpiri language, there is not even a word for “rape” — they use “kanyi”, which means take" is the blathering of a linguistic ignoramus.

  20. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 1, 2018 @ 5:32 am

    Tangentially, is take > rape a common semantic development? In my native Swedish the word for "rape" (v) is våldta, literally "take by force".

    (Bare ta "take" can refer to sex, just like the English cognate, but doesn't imply anything wrt consent.)

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