In reading Life: A User’s Manual, my wife and I have found that the reward for making your way through Part One’s bewildering descriptions and brief references to the lives of the inhabitants of the apartment building which is the focus of the book is that in Part Two you start getting longer and more involving stories; one of these is about Marcel Appenzzell, a young would-be anthropologist who studied with Malinowski and “resolved to share the life of the tribe he would study so completely as to merge himself into it.” He goes to Sumatra in search of “a mysterious people whom the Malays called the Anadalams, or Orang-Kubus, or just Kubus.” After many travails he manages to spend some time with these people, and later reports on their language, which is linguistically implausible to the point of impossibility but has a Borgesian flair:
As for their language, it was quite close to the coastal tongues, and Appenzzell could understand it without major difficulty. What struck him especially was that they used a very restricted vocabulary, no larger than a few dozen words, and he wondered if the Kubus, in the image of their distant neighbours the Papuans, didn’t voluntarily impoverish their vocabulary, deleting words each time a death occurred in the village. One consequence of this demise was that the same word came to refer to an ever-increasing number of objects. Thus the Malay word for “hunting”, Pekee, meant indifferently to hunt, to walk, to carry, spear, gazelle, antelope, peccary, my’am — a type of very hot spice used lavishly in meat dishes — as well as forest, tomorrow, dawn, etc. Similarly Sinuya, a word which Appenzzell put alongside the Malay usi, “banana”, and nuya, “coconut”, meant to eat, meal, soup, gourd, spatula, plait, evening, house, pot, fire, silex (the Kubus made fire by rubbing two flints), fibula, comb, hair, hoja’ (a hair-dye made from coconut milk mixed with various soils and plants), etc. Of all the characteristics of the Kubus, these linguistic habits are the best known, because Appenzzell described them in detail in a long letter to the Swedish philologist Hambo Taskerson, whom he’d known in Vienna, and who was working at that time in Copenhagen, with Hjelmslev and Brøndal. He pointed out in an aside that these characteristics could perfectly well apply to a Western carpenter using tools with precise names — gauge, tonguing plane, moulding plane, jointer, mortise, jack plane, rabbet, etc. — but asking his apprentice to pass them to him by saying just: “Gimme the thingummy”.
“Hjelmslev and Brøndal” are the well-known linguists Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1965) and Viggo Brøndal (1887-1942), but Hambo Taskerson seems to be an invention. There is a Kubu people, but I have no idea to what extent Perec’s description matches what they were like 70 years ago. I’m not going to go to the trouble of transcribing the original French of the passage, but you can see it here (the blockquoted paragraph at the bottom of p. 112); the final “Gimme the thingummy” is “passe-moi le machin.”