query: taboo against 3 people in picture

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Wed Feb 22 12:14:20 UTC 2012

Dear all,

Apologies for posting a non-linguistic query, but I'm interested in 
checking whether the non-linguistic feature in question correlates with 
a particular linguistic area, so perhaps all you field linguists out 
there can contribute some of your experiences.

In many parts of mainland and insular Southeast Asia stretching into New 
Guinea, there is a taboo against three people posing for a photo.  One 
or two is fine, four, five and up is fine, but three is a no no.  In 
some places the taboo is strong, while in others it's just something 
people joke about.  Sometimes it is said that the person in the middle 
will meet misfortune or die.

I have encountered this taboo in Cambodia, Sumatra, Borneo, Palawan, 
Luzon, Sulawesi, Maluku, and on a recent trip to the Baliem Valley in 
the Papuan highlands.  (Though not in Java or the lesser Sunda isles.)  
The areal distribution suggests that the taboo must be older than the 
advent of photography, perhaps extending back to drawings and paintings; 
the antiquity of the taboo is further supported by its presence amongst 
the Papuan highland Dani, whose first contact with the outside world was 
only in the 1940s (and it seems implausible that they would have picked 
up the taboo since then).

My question is: where else is such a taboo present?  Are you familiar 
with it from any other parts of the world?   I would greatly appreciate 
both positive and negative data (the latter always being harder to 
obtain reliably).  I am particularly interested in delimiting the extent 
of the area listed above:  does the taboo exist further east in New 
Guinea and into the Pacific?  What about north into China, or west into 
South Asia?



David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321 Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at eva.mpg.de
Webpage:  http://www.eva.mpg.de/~gil/

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