The Language of Wakanda.

Songdog and I saw Black Panther last night, and it was just as spectacular and well-acted as I expected but considerably more ideologically sophisticated (who expects ideological sophistication from a superhero movie?); as I said to Songdog afterwards, the chief bone of contention between the main antagonists could be seen as an update of the Stalin-Trotsky debate, with Stalin’s “socialism in one country” being substituted by “vibranium in one country.” But that’s not relevant to LH; what is is the NY Times article by John Eligon my brother sent me almost a month ago and I’m finally able to read and post, “Wakanda Is a Fake Country, but the African Language in ‘Black Panther’ Is Real”:

The kingdom’s official language, however, is anything but fantasy. isiXhosa, which you will hear at several points throughout the movie, is a language that more than eight million South Africans — about 15 percent of the population — claim as their mother tongue.

“To have our language incorporated in a story that big would be phenomenal,” said Namhla Mbawuli, a musician and native isiXhosa speaker who lives in Johannesburg. “It reinforces the importance of our culture, accepting our language and having pride in being Xhosa.”

Now, you might ask why is a kingdom shown as being somewhere in east central Africa, somewhere in the Great Lakes region, speaking a language from much farther south, in the Eastern Cape? There’s no in-story answer to that (although of course one could come up with a migration theory if needed), but the article provides the real-world answer:

One of the products of the Eastern Cape was the actor John Kani, who plays T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa, in “Black Panther.” Mr. Kani’s character made brief appearances in the 2016 movie “Captain America: Civil War,” and when he was on set for that film, he suggested to the directors that they incorporate some isiXhosa into the dialogue. He spoke a little bit of it, and they were sold, said Nate Moore, an executive producer of “Black Panther.”

So Mr. Kani taught some lines to Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, and they had a brief, intimate interaction speaking isiXhosa in “Civil War.” […]

When they got to work on “Black Panther,” Mr. Moore said, the director, Ryan Coogler, “wanted to make it a priority to use Xhosa as much as possible.”

That was not always easy: It is one of the more difficult South African languages to master. So the crew tried to make sure the cast members had their lines as early as possible to practice. Dialect coaches were provided, including Mr. Kani and his son, Atandwa, who plays a young T’Chaka in the film. Mr. Boseman had another dialect coach, whom he talked to via Skype.

Of course, as Eligon writes, “the success of the use of isiXhosa in the film will best be judged by native speakers”; Mbawuli said “not bad, but could be better.” At any rate, it certainly sounds impressive!

Comments

  1. I wonder if the producer(?) commissions a speaker’s assessment of what was learned well and less well, for institutional memory next time.

    Looks like a pretty challenging phonetic inventory for an English speaker.
    http://sail.usc.edu/~lgoldste/General_Phonetics/Listening/Xhosa/Xhosa.html

  2. it certainly sounds impressive!

    Trevor Noah was majorly impressed starting about 0:55.

  3. Ha! I love how when asking the reader to distinguish 15 clicks, tangent’s link casually says “You may ignore tone”.

  4. Phew!

    West ǃXoon has 164 consonants in a strict unit analysis, including 111 clicks in 23 series, which under a cluster analysis reduce to 87 consonants, including 43 clicks.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taa_language#Consonants

  5. Holy crap!

    AntC: Loved the clip, thanks.

  6. here’s what a native speaker thought about it:

    http://www.thedailyvox.co.za/wakanda-felt-like-home-sipho-hlongwane/

    ‘felt like home’
    ‘the exclamations of surprise or anguish – as if our own black mothers were cast in the film’

    I saw some bits of Lesotho in the movie, Champagne Castle and Monk’s Cowl in the Drakensberg is on screen for a second or two. We used to hike up and sleep in a cave on Monk’s Cowl, so the profile was instantly recognizable.

    The accents in English sounded South African to me so it felt a bit like home even to a wandering European-African-American. My father spoke Xhosa as one of his several languages, growing up on a farm in the Eastern Cape. I believed that Xhosa now isiXhosa got its clicks from the indigenous San and Khoi peoples and their languages, Taa among them as Piotr says.

  7. Miriam Makeba’s always-catchy Xhosa “Click Song”, on Language Hat.

  8. Greg Pandatshang says:

    As for why Xhosa would be spoken in East Africa, I thought of it as the same as asking why Haya would be spoken A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Far Away per Return of the Jedi. It just is because willing-suspension-of-disbelief. That said, Wakanda is apparently supposed to border Uganda and the DRC, so it wouldn’t be a stretch at all to imagine something Bantu would be spoken there (which is more than we can say for ancient distant galaxies).

    I was vaguely surprised that the makers of Black Panther opted not to hire somebody to make a Wakandan conlang. That seems to be the in thing (DC did it for Kryptonian in one of the recent Superman movies). African languages tend to be relatively neglected as inspiration by conlangers (just a tendency; there are certainly exceptions), which would’ve made Wakandan interesting and distinctive by conlang standards.

  9. Whatever approach they decided to take, a Wakandan conlang would be sure to offend somebody.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    While the wide range of Bantu languages covers the Uganda/Congo border as well as South Africa, it is only the latter end of Bantu’s range where you get the clicks (probably as a borrowed areal feature), making Xhosa a suboptimal stand-in. OTOH the handful of languages spoken in East Africa with clicks are all non-Bantu and perhaps all plausible relics of what was spoken there before the Bantu expansion, so maybe the special circumstances of Wakanda would have enabled a pre-Bantu substrate influence of a sort not actually attested in the non-fictional Bantu languages of that general region?

  11. it wouldn’t be a stretch at all to imagine something Bantu would be spoken there

    Of course not — the obvious thing would have been to use Swahili, which would have been easier on the actors, but I suppose it was too obvious and thus boring (and maybe seen as neocolonialist ignorance: “Oh, it’s Africa, they all speak Swahili over there”). But Xhosa is (historically/geographically) ridiculous. And yes, a Wakandan conlang would have been a better choice as far as I’m concerned (not that I mind the Xhosa!).

  12. It’s like a made-up European country, filmed in, say, Bavaria, but where the language spoken is Armenian.

    (Which, come to think about it, is less ridiculous than using Armenian and Hebrew to stand in for Kazakh, as was done in Borat.)

  13. Bathrobe says:

    Well, at least the Kazakhs would have been happy.

  14. “But Xhosa is (historically/geographically) ridiculous. ”

    True, but this is the MCU we’re talking about. I’m sure people have already created detailed retcons to explain how the Wakandans are descended from some proto-Xhosa tribe that migrated north millennia ago. Or maybe the Wakandans, with all their wealth and leisure time, just decided that Xhosa was pretty cool and speak it for fun.

  15. Both excellent explanations!

  16. Whatever approach they decided to take, a Wakandan conlang would be sure to offend somebody.
    Those of us with visceral hates of conlangs, for one.

    It’s like a made-up European country, filmed in, say, Bavaria, but where the language spoken is Armenian.
    … You don’t watch too many movies, do you?

    It reminds me of this, seen in a recent episode of “The Librarians” at the entrance to the Polesie forest. Said forest is shared between Belarus, Ukraine and Poland and yet, the language on the sign is not Belarussian, Ukrainian or Polish (that it’s Google-translated is a given).

  17. Trond Engen says:

    It’s like a made-up European country, filmed in, say, Bavaria, but where the language spoken is Armenian.

    Or Ridiculously Accented English.

  18. Ridiculously Accented English is the new global language.

  19. T. Carter Ross says:

    The use of isiXhosa was well done I think, but it was also interesting that the dialect coach worked with South African accents for most of the Wakandans, but with West African accents for the Jabari, helping to set them apart: https://slate.com/culture/2018/02/an-interview-with-black-panthers-dialect-coach.html

    Also, the written Wakandan language was reportely based on the ancient Nsibidi script from Nigeria: http://www.indiewire.com/2018/02/black-panther-wakanda-written-language-ryan-coogler-afrofuturism-1201931252/

    Unrelated, but in the same vein of it’s good to see African languages getting more widespread use/exposure in pop culture, the new young adult high fantasy novel “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi uses Yorùbá (largely without translating it) when invoking magic.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    In Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the language on shops (though not spoken by people) was Esperanto.

  21. That’s right, I’d forgotten that!

  22. Greg Pandatshang says:

    if the filmmakers just really like how clicks sound, I would do them up an imaginary Bantu language with a heavy Sandawe and Hadza-inspired substrate (along the lines of J.W. Brewer’s comment). Two conlangs for the price of one!

    One advantage of a conlang is that if the director says “more clicks!” or “fewer clicks!” or “these laminal clicks sound awesome, but the lateral ones have got to go!” or “clicks yes, tones no!”, then it can be made to order, without asking isiXhosaphone actors to butcher their own language.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    Related to T. Carter Ross’ point, the reasonably-successful (I’m told) YA author Elizabeth Wein’s work includes a whole series of books basically retelling the Arthurian mythos as relocated to 6th-century Axum (which was just a bit northeast of Wakanda, innit?). I don’t know if there are bits of Ge’ez or what have you stuck into the dialogue or narration or if it’s all given in English (with or without an archaizing register).

    I knew Ms. Wein a little bit back in college (we lived down the hall from each other during the 1985-86 academic year and she was a friend of my then-girlfriend) but have not kept up contact over the intervening decades and haven’t read her stuff although I’ve heard positive things from others (not personally acquainted with the author) who have.

  24. Lot of Welsh people also excited by Black Panther because the Welsh flag was placed in the United Nations, and so, Wales was a recognised independent state in the film. (flag at far right of the picture)

    https://www.theguardian.com/news/shortcuts/2018/feb/19/is-black-panther-flying-the-flag-for-welsh-independence

    https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/film-news/welsh-flag-flies-independent-state-14296040

    it seems a member of the production team was Welsh and decided to place the flag in the UN.

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