Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Language of the River People

“The speech of the river people posed philosophical as well as linguistic problems. For example, since they had no regular system of plurals but only an elaborate system of altered numerals for denoting specific numbers of given objects, the problem of the particular versus the universal did not exist and the word ‘man’ stood for ‘all man’. This had a profound effect on their societization. Neither was there a precise equivalent for the verb ‘to be’… and one was left only with the naked, unarguable fact of existence.”

Carter, Angela. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1994. p. 71.

This passage shows the vast amount of influence language has over a people’s perception of the world. As the poststructuralist quote says, “There is nothing beyond the text.” Here, we see that the limitations of the River People’s language fundamentally change their view of the world around them. They have no form of singulars and plurals, meaning that they have little to no concept of specificity. The above example states that instead of referring to a single man, their word is used to represent “all man.” Further along from the above quote, Carter also claims that these people do not have a future tense for their verbs, causing them to act with “absolute immediacy.” Their perception of something as basic as their own existence is radically different from ours, due to the absence of the verb, “to be.” The River People are an example of how our perception and understanding of the universe is contingent upon our ability to communicate ideas.


  1. I think this could also be linked to Nao-Kurai's inability to learn how to write. Desiderio yearns to integrate with the River People and put his past behind him, but he cannot fully integrate. The River People also recognize him as an outsider--he's been tainted by Western knowledge, and so they hope to acquire the same knowledge by devouring him. I think the passage illustrates well Desiderio's inability to fully belong either in either European or Indian society--Desiderio is truly a hybrid.

  2. I agree with Wyatt's statement. I find it particularly interesting that the River People want to devour Desiderio. I think this could also be related to a postcolonial analysis. There is a difference between languages, cultures, and knowledge. Desiderio is happy to be associated with a group of people and tries to assimilate by learning the language. The River People, on the other hand, try to learn his language through the ritual of devouring him. The roles of imperialism are switched in a sense that the foreigner is trying to outbreed. I do not think it is a coincidence that Carter has all of this take place in Africa.