Linguistics and Pop Culture: Language, Culture, and Black Panther

Black Panther has been a phenomenon in the box office. Since its release in the middle of February, the movie has been vaulted to the 10th biggest movie in history by ticket sales grossing over $1.28 Billion worldwide. The film’s stunning depiction of the fictional country of Wakanda wouldn’t be the same without the cultural elements introduced. The religion of Wakanda, which borrows heavily from the pantheon of ancient Egypt, the surrounding landscape, and the material culture depicted bring afrofuturism to the silver screen. The linguistic elements of the film are perhaps the most striking part of Wakanda (perhaps we’re biased though).

 

If you’re really worried about Spoilers, don’t keep reading. Key plot points are not divulged but you could maybe piece something together if you tried hard enough.

 

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

Unlike the languages of Middle Earth, Westeros and other planets Sarah talked about in her three part series, Wakanda is tied to a spot on planet Earth. Wakanda is situated in various locations in East Africa according to different comics. Originally, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee centered it between Kenya and Tanzania. Later mentions placed this country on Lake Victoria while still others, including the Black Panther film, show Wakanda on the southern edge of Lake Turkana surrounded by both fictional and real African countries. However, the linguistic elements used in the film originate from very different areas of the continent. The spoken language heard in the film is isiXhosa from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. The written script displayed in the film is an adaptation of the Nsibidi script from Nigeria. The decision to use these linguistic elements appears to have been primarily influenced by artistic motivations rather than geographic ones. The Afro-futurism vibe Nate More and Ryan Coogler (the producer and director respectively) were seeking is there. In the beginning of the film, the origin of Wakanda is discussed. There were five tribes that coalesced into the country of Wakanda after they discovered the Vibranium mound. Perhaps, the language varieties are taken from so many regions due to the patchwork nation they’re spoken in.

 

Let’s talk about the most salient  linguistic component: the spoken language used. IsiXhosa is an Nguni bantu language. Here’s a quick video by the BBC with some isiXhosa phrases themed around the film https://youtu.be/2afSbqlp5HU . Most viewers will notice something right away: Clicks floating above the stream of speech. IsiXhosa has dental, lateral and alveolar clicks with a variety of different places of articulation (including aspirated, slack voice, and nasal clicks). Tones and vowel length contrasts can also be heard in the video above.

 

I always assumed that the language spoken in Wakanda was a Bantu language but this was for somewhat mistaken reasons. I assumed that the Wa was a prefix which would correspond to class 2 in Bantu languages (analogous to the wa prefix in kiswahili). This class commonly refers to groups of people. The semantic stretch to go from a group of people to the name of the country was minor enough for me to see the connection. However, the name ‘wakanda’ is of uncertain origin. One theory is that it was indeed after a group called the kamba who have a demonym of wakanda (This blog https://cinema.everyeye.it/articoli/speciale-black-panther-storia-cultura-geografia-religioni-del-wakanda-37429.html seems to be very confident in this fact but there are other proposed etymologies for Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s creation). Other proposed origins include that this is derived from a diety of the North American Great Plains Native Americans.

 

The varieties of English emulated by the actors in Black Panther are drawn from the corners of Sub-Saharan Africa as well. As Trevor Noah remarks:

 

“Mbaku had a Nigerian inspired accent.. And Nikia had an accent that had flair, a bit of Kenya in there and T’challa came out and there was a moment where I was watching you and I was like why does this sound a little bit like a young Nelson Mandela. Was there a Xhosa inspiration behind the accent?”

 

In fact, Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa) was carrying over an accent from a film called “Message from the King” in which he plays a South African (https://youtu.be/mhiuyCWZOuY). Boseman was also emulating the accent of his language coach and on-screen father Joni Kani (T’Chaka).

 

Black Panther’s head dialect coach, Beth McGuire, discussed that the different accents used were the result of her approach to dialect selection (https://io9.gizmodo.com/black-panthers-dialect-coach-brilliantly-explains-why-w-1823243739). She gave the actors three samples to listen to and they picked one to emulate. She also explains that the different backgrounds represented in the cast led to different idiolects on screen.

 

“What was really interesting is, you’ll hear that they all sound like the same world and they’re all speaking with a Xhosa accent, but they’re slightly idiolectical. Daniel Kaluuya’s accent is a little different than Letitia Wright’s accent, even though they’re both Brits, because Daniel’s parents are from Uganda, whereas Letitia was born in Guyana.”

The written language shown adorning the walls and tapestries of Steptown is based upon the Nsibidi script of Nigeria. Check out the two signs on the left side of this alley.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER Ph: Matt Kennedy..©Marvel Studios 2018

(http://www.indiewire.com/2018/02/black-panther-wakanda-written-language-ryan-coogler-afrofuturism-1201931252/)

 

This script is an ideographic writing system that is primarily used by members of the Ekpe society in Nigeria. This script is old but it’s uncertain how old. Estimates range from 1600 CE to 2000 BCE. I’ve included a chart with some sample signs and their English translations. Arcs generally indicate people and different arrangements of arcs express different relationships between people.

 

For Black Panther, the nsibidi system was given a futuristic spin. Hannah Beachler, the production designer, took inspiration from graffiti observed during a visit to South Africa. In addition, orthographies like Chinese, Arabic, Dogon and Murci were also used to inspire the various forms of Wakandan writing seen in the movie. For example, the symbols used in Shuri’s lab (Letitia Wright) were more much more ornate than the traditional symbols in the throne room shown below.

 

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o)..Ph: Matt Kennedy..©Marvel Studios 2018

http://www.indiewire.com/2018/02/black-panther-wakanda-written-language-ryan-coogler-afrofuturism-1201931252/

 

Going off of the writing symbol chart above, it looks like these symbols mean congress or meeting. Makes sense for the room where decisions are made in the movie.

 

The linguistic elements present in Black Panther are inspired by the rich linguistic fabric of Africa. Whether the tribes that came together to create Wakanda were spread from all around the continent or whether this geographic mismatch was just not that important to the lore of the film, the end result is a world that pulls you in. The linguistic landscape does as much to bring you to Wakanda as the shimmering towers of Steptown.

 

What are your thoughts on the film? What did you think of the languages and accents used? Let us know! As a reminder, we are still short of our goal for the 2018 funddrive. Please consider donating on the fund drive page. We are extremely grateful for your support!

-Kenneth Steimel

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