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From Myanmar: women's fight against verbal taboo symbolises wider rights battle

In Myanmar there are no vaginas. Linguistically, at least, that part of the female body does not exist in Burmese – a lexical omission that highlights the intense cultural taboos facing women’s rights activists as they battle against the country’s woeful maternal health record and entrenched gender prejudices.

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However, for the majority of people who use the country’s official language, Burmese, the body part is inherently shameful and it is difficult for them to believe any word applying to it – even in another language – could be anything other than vulgar.

The only “polite” term available for women who want or need to refer to that part of their anatomy translates as “woman’s body” – hardly precise.

Does Burmese lack a precise word for "vagina"?

  • I find this extremely unlikely, what would Burmese gynecologists learn in medical school? – March Ho Nov 4 '15 at 22:29
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    Is the claim that Burmese lacks a word/term for "vagina," or that it lacks a polite term? In terms of "precision", euphemisms can start out vague but eventually become more precise/specialized--in Latin, penis originally meant "tail" and vagina meant "sheath," but the meanings evolved over time, leading to their more specific current English meanings. Perhaps the Burmese word translated here as "woman's body" literally or historically means that, but in practice is restricted to mean "vagina." – purposeful porpoise Nov 5 '15 at 0:29
  • So the claim is essentially "There wasn't a word to describe X, so one was invented which has an etymology derived from a term with a meaning other than X."? – Flimzy Nov 5 '15 at 8:42
  • These are interesting points I ought to ask on linguistics.SE, sumelic and Flimzy. – Andrew Grimm Nov 5 '15 at 11:19
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A reporter from Myanmar Times (the newspaper involved in the scandal referred to in the Guardian article) has written another article (again in English) about the scandal:

In it, she agrees with the Guardian claim that the polite word for the vagina translates to "woman's body", and that other regional languages do not possess similar taboos for the word.

Everybody I spoke to confirmed there is not a polite or formal word in Myanmar that directly refers to the vagina. This is not the case, I understand, for a number of ethnic languages in Myanmar, which do have specific words and fewer if any taboos in using them. It is important to remember when considering such issues in ethnically diverse Myanmar that in attempting to work around the sensitivities of one culture you might be ignoring those of another.[...]

But the closest one gets in Myanmar’s official language is a phrase that translates as “woman’s body”.

Additionally, she claims that the language does contain a (vulgar) word for the vagina, and that technical words for the vagina exist.

Linguistic experts inform me there is in fact an “etymologically basic word” in Myanmar for the vagina, but it is the equivalent of the four-letter English word beginning with “c” that dates back to at least the 13th century. This Myanmar word does not even appear in dictionaries.

[...]

There are also some more technical terms which equate to “inner female genitalia”, “birth canal” and “women’s reproductive organs”. However, from what I’ve been told these are usually only used in “legal settings” and don’t quite have the same precision as vagina.

My linguist friend tells me some dictionaries do include the Sanskrit/Pali word yoni or yawni, and has been that used in a neutral way on health and beauty pages in Myanmar-language publications (as it is also used in English). However, technically yoni refers to the vulva or external genitalia, whereas the vagina is the internal passage.

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    [Laughs quietly to self at the idea that the English word "vagina" has precision.] – Oddthinking Nov 5 '15 at 2:23
  • Additionally, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoni seems to suggest internal genitalia instead of external ones. – March Ho Nov 5 '15 at 2:51
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    Wait, so they have a word for vagina, but we translate it wrong, so we believe that they don't have a word? Many English words are based off of root words, such that you could translate them into some weird abstract sentences, for examples mirror is literally "look at". But that does not mean we do not have a word for "mirror". – Jonathon Nov 5 '15 at 3:10

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