The Black Panther movie has become one of the most lauded films in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Being the first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, and featuring powerful themes (as well as female characters who can stare down charging armoured rhinos without needing help from their male counterparts), it’s easy to see why.
The film is largely based in a fictional African nation, Wakanda. But while Wakanda’s Vibranium-based technology might be pure invention, the real African language spoken in Black Panther is not.
In this article, we’ll take a quick look at constructed languages used in other films and then the real language spoken in fictional Wakanda – isiXhosa. Which, as the Black Panther cast found out, can be as hard to handle as Michael B. Jordan’s no-doubt incredible workout regime.
What is a constructed language?
As you might guess from the name, a constructed language is a language which has been designed rather than one which has evolved naturally. Sometimes called artificial languages or invented languages, constructed languages are created for many reasons. The constructed language Esperanto, for example, was designed by its author Ludwik Zamenhof to promote international understanding. Esperanto and other languages of this type are also known as international auxiliary languages. A simplified version of the idea behind these languages is that by giving people from all nations a tongue in which to communicate which belongs to none of them, an even playing field is established.
In other cases, constructed languages are created in order to give fictional worlds the air of realism. They feature in many prominent works of literature, screen and video games.
Popular constructed languages used in movies
Some of the most well-known constructed languages used in movies and books have achieved fame almost as great as the fictional universe where they started life:
1) “All the tongues of elves… men… and orcs” (The Lord of the Rings)
One of the most prolific creators of fictional languages, J.R.R. Tolkien created several entire tongues for his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings. The most complete are High Elvish and Low Elvish (it’s important for the uninitiated to remember that they’re completely different). High Elvish, also known as Quenya, is somewhat similar to Finnish. While Low Elvish, also called Sindarin – most likely the language that Legolas speaks in the movies – is much more like Welsh.
Tolkien was, in fact, a student of languages before he found much later fame as an author, which is probably why both varieties of Elvish work so well. Many hundreds of people around the world actually speak them.
2) Klingon (Star Trek)
Another fictional language actually spoken by many real world people is Klingon, originally created for Gene Roddenberry’s utopian science fiction tales of galactic exploration, Star Trek.
Created by an actual linguist – Marc Okrand – the original sound of the language was suggested by James Doohan, the actor and former soldier best known for his role in the Star Trek Original Series and movies as Montgomery Scott, or Scotty (of “beam me up, Scotty” fame).
Many people speak Klingon fluently, many important classical works have been translated into the language and you can even get it on Duolingo!
3) Dothraki and Valyrian (Game of Thrones)
The language spoken by the broadly Mongolian-esque nomadic horse-riding tribes of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the Dothraki, found eager ears when it premiered on HBO. Martin didn’t actually create the language itself beyond a few small sections necessary for the books. So when it became necessary to actually portray the language on screen, the Language Creation Society and linguist David J. Peterson were called in to turn it into a useable tongue.
Peterson also created the Valyrian tongue (as well as two fictional derivative languages – Astapori and Meereenese) which, along with Dothraki, was described as “the most convincing fictional tongues since Elvish” in The Economist. High praise indeed.
The language used in the Black Panther movie – isiXhosa
Unlike the fictional languages mentioned above, the setting of Wakanda might be invented, but the language used in the Black Panther movie is called isiXhosa. And it is real. One of South Africa’s 11 official languages, isiXhosa is spoken by 8.2 million people as their first language and by around 11 million people as a second language.
The Xhosa people have a long history of fighting against European colonial invaders, making the language a great choice for the fictional Wakanda, an African nation owning technological supremacy – and one which was never subject to colonial conquerors. IsiXhosa also has strong anti-apartheid ties and is predominantly spoken in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, a part of the country which saw notable oppression of the Xhosa people.
The suggestion to use the language was that of actor John Kani. Kani portrayed King T’Chaka, the father of Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, in the Black Panther movie. Before making his brief first appearance in the Captain America: Civil War film, Kani suggested that the Wakandan characters should speak isiXhosa. The directors apparently only needed to hear Kani, himself raised in the Eastern Cape Province, speak the language once before they on board with the idea.
The languages of South Africa
As mentioned previously, isiXhosa is one of the official languages of South Africa. But it is not the only one. The languages recognised by the South African government and the approximate percentage of the population which speak them are:
- Zulu -22.7%
- Xhosa – 16%
- Afrikaans – 13.5%
- English – 9.6%
- Northern Sotho – 9.1%
- Tswana – 8%
- Sotho – 7.6%
- Tsonga – 4.5%
- Swazi – 2.5%
- Venda – 2.4%
- Ndebele – 2.1%
Most South Africans speak more than one language.
The isiXhosa language
Depending on what you’re used to, isiXhosa can sound very different to your ear than other languages. There are a great many “pops” and “clicks” which can be difficult to enunciate. In fact, many of the actors in Black Panther struggled with their lines. Oscar Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o, herself a fluent speaker of Spanish, Luo, English and Swahili, commented that isiXhosa is “one of the hardest languages on the planet.”
The “pops” and “clicks”, while completely natural to most South Africans, are quite difficult for non-natives to replicate as part of a normal speech pattern. If you’re struggling with this, you might consider a few simple tips from professional Xhosa linguists:
- An “X” sound in Xhosa – requires you to make the same sound you might when mimicking a horse’s hooves, using the side of your mouth.
- A “C” sound in Xhosa – place your tongue against your front teeth and make the “clicking” sound.
- A “Q” sound in Xhosa – place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, then click.
But while the sterling cast of Black Panther‘s pronunciation might have given native isiXhosa speakers a cause to smile, the prominence given to the language and the history of the people behind it seems to have found universal acclaim.
And with the Xhosa people having given rise to such figures as Nobel Peace Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela – as well as there being further Black Panther films in the offing – isiXhosa’s time on the world stage may have only just begun.
Are you an isiXhosa speaker surprised or pleased that your language has suddenly shot to the forefront of the world stage? Or do you speak one of the constructed languages we’ve mentioned above?
In the case of the latter, perhaps we should say “alatulya” or even “nuqneH”! Join the conversation below and share your wisdom.