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I couldn't understand the meaning of this sentence:

The Mundugumors of New Guinea extend the incest taboo so far as for each man seven of eight women are ineligible marriage partners.

I would appreciate if you could explain how this sentence works (its structure).

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  • Do you mean a man in that society can marry one closely blood related woman? Yet, if it is so, why does the writer mention seven of eight women??
    – Jjang eu
    Sep 30 '15 at 1:55
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We start with this sentence:

The Mundugumors of New Guinea extend the incest taboo so far as for each man seven of eight women are ineligible marriage partners.

That rather awkward wording amount to saying this:

The Mundugumors of New Guinea maintain an incest taboo that extends so far that, for any Mundugumor man, seven of eight Mundugumor women are ineligible as marriage partners.

The OP wants to understand the sense of the wording "for any Mundugumor man, seven of eight Mundugumor women are ineligible as marriage partners." The problem for the prospective groom is that he is so closely related (by common ancestry) to 87.5% of the prospective brides in his area (that is, to seven out of every eight women who may themselves be looking for husbands) that marrying any woman from the 87.5% group would violate the Mundugumor culture's incest taboo.

The expression "seven out of eight women" does not imply that the man will marry eight women and that all but one of them must be distantly enough related to him that those marriages do not run afoul of the incest taboo, but that the eighth one can violate it because all the other marriages are not abominations. No.

The expression means that the man must find a wife from among the 12.5% of the female population that he is eligible to marry even when the culture's incest taboo is deployed to its fullest extent. He doesn't marry 12.5% of all Mundugumor women; he doesn't marry one out of every eight Mundugumor women. He marries one woman, and she must come from the 12.5 percent of Mundugumor women who aren't off-limits to him owing to the culture's incest taboo.

Note that the women who fall into the 87.5% that are unacceptable as partners and the women who fall into the 12.5% that are culturally acceptable as brides will differ from one prospective groom to the next—because each person in the society has a different position in the genealogical pyramid that everyone must take into account to avoid a marriage to someone who is too closely related.

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  • Thank you for ur detailed response. I think i can get sth. Anyway, i just dont understand why the writer uses this expression that causes confusion. Can he state clearer? Or is there any underlying meaning in it?
    – Jjang eu
    Sep 30 '15 at 3:06
  • Most native English speakers are familiar with expressions of the type "seven of eight women" and recognize that such expressions refer to a numerical ratio or proportion. To me, the most badly written parts of the original sentence are "so far as for each man" (which is not idiomatic and requires readers to figure out on their own that it means something like "so far that it leaves each potential husband in a situation where") and "ineligible marriage partners" (which is extremely misleading because it omits the crucial word as between "ineligible" and "marriage").
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 30 '15 at 3:38
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First, there really should be a comma after the word man:

For each man, seven of every eight women are ineligible marriage partners.

Your sentence was probably taken from a paragraph in which the particulars of its meaning would be made clearer. Nevertheless, I think what the sentence is saying is this:

An eligible bachelor who is looking for a marriage partner would need, on average, to date--or at least research--eight women before finding one who would be eligible as a marriage partner, where "eligible" more likely than not means suitable.

In other words, the likelihood of this eligible bachelor finding a suitable mate in the person of the first woman he dates is pretty slim. Statistically, his chances are 1 in 8. Put differently, he'd "better shop around"!

Oh, and just because a potential marriage partner might be eligible (and/or suitable), that doesn't mean she would necessarily want to marry the guy!

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