What would Wakanda sound like?

Today, Marvel's Black Panther is released. The Black Panther, aka T'Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman), is the king of Wakanda, a fictional country in Africa (neighbored by other fictional countries like Azania and Narobia (but not Nambia). While I'm extremely excited for the movie (NO SPOILERS PLEASE), I don't have high hopes for a surprise fictional language in the movie, given the pre-film hype about the inspiration for design elements, costume, and even T'Challa's accent. In previous films, T'Challa's father was played by a Xhosa speaking actor, and it now seems that Xhosa being spoken in Wakanda is now Marvel Cinematic Universe head-canon.

Geographic improbability aside, I don't have a problem with this, as Chadwick Boseman does a great Xhosa accent --- far better than, say, Morgan Freeman in Invictus. But, given that Wakanda is supposedly 5,000km away from South Africa (where the non-Wakandan Xhosa people are), what would the languages of Wakanda sound like? This is just a short blog post to (shallowly) explore that question with some links for the interested.

Location, Location, Location

Wakanda is situated somewhere in East Africa, by either Lake Victoria, or Lake Turkana. That means it's somewhere around Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. What's great about this is that it's an area where a lot of languages from different language families are spoken. So the five major ethnic groups in Wakanda could all potentially have their own very different languages.

What about the comics?

The character and country were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966. Both white guys, neither linguists. So there are a lot of elements of the Black Panther mythos that have names that sound, well, like what a white guy would make up to sound exotic and African (or look it on the page). That said, certain things are just part of the canon. So The kings have an (evidently) ejective /t'/ as the first part of their names. The all female fighting force, the Dora Milaje are called what they're called. Anyone contracted to construct languages for the MCU will have to work with the existing material, much like how Marc Oakrand developed Klingon by building around what was already uttered on-screen in Star Trek.  And, that will have an effect on the backstory and character development. To my knowledge, Ta-Nehisi Coates and other recent writers have not done a deep dive into the linguistic side of Wakanda, but we can't really expect Ta-Nehisi to solve everything for us.

What's spoken in that area?

As I mentioned above, that particular (vague) part of East Africa has representation from a few of the major families: Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo A, Niger-Congo B ("Bantu" languages), and Nilo-Saharan languages.

In Kenya, there is, of course, Swahili --- a Bantu language spoken by 50 to 100 million people and a lingua franca for the region. Swahili's huge number of speakers means you can hear it on internet radio if you want. It also means that it has lost lexical tone (when the pitch of a word or syllable changes the meaning), and because it's used for trade by so many people who speak so many other languages as their native language, it is relatively regular, meaning there's not a lot of unpredictable grammatical stuff.

But there's also a lot else spoken there. Kenya alone is home to 68 languages. The most prominent of which are Kikuyu, with 8 million speakers, and Dholuo, or Luo, with 4 to 5 million speakers.

The latter, Dholuo, is not a Bantu language, but a Nilo-Saharan language. What's the difference? The main difference is that all the Bantu languages group nouns into types (think gender in European languages, except there's 10-17 of them). Every noun has a prefix for its noun class, and the prefixes generally com in pairs (singular vs plural). So in Zulu (and Swahili!) the base form for the noun 'person' is ntu. But this doesn't just show up on its own. Rather, it has one of these noun class prefixes, as in :

  • umuntu 'person'
  • abantu 'people' (hence the name for the languages...they all call people some form of "bantu")
  • ubuntu 'humanity, humanness' (whence also the operating system).

So you can get phrases like umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: "a person is a person through other people".

Bantu languages also generally have a LOT of sounds, but simple syllable types, almost always CV --- Consonant Vowel. You'll never see a word like English strengths. This is obscured by the writing a bit, so for instance, <ng> in Zulu is one sound, not two (the sound of <ng> in sing). Swahili also has syllabic nasals, so for instance, the <m> in mzungu 'white person' is it's own syllable: m-zu-ngu.

Back to Luo: Luo has vowel harmony, meaning all the vowels in a word have to share the same feature. What's the separating factor? How advanced your tongue root is. So words with the vowels in (an American pronunciation of) bean, bait, bot, boat, and boot, are one class, and words with the vowels in bin, bet, bat, bought, and foot are in another. A single word will not have vowels from both groups, only one.

Even cooler, Luo grammatically distinguishes between alienable and inalienable posession, so for instance, the word for a dog's bone has different forms depending on whether you mean the bone is part of the dog's skeleton, or a cow bone it's chewing on. If it can be taken away, it's got a suffix marking that fact.

Wakanda is also close to Ethiopia and South Sudan, where Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken. The most well-known subset of these are the Semitic languages, which include Arabic and Hebrew, but also languages Americans are often less familiar with, like Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia.

Amharic, like other Semitic languages, has what's called non-concatenative morphology, meaning that words aren't always built by adding prefixes, suffixes, or infixes, but are instead built with a system of (unpronouncable) roots that combine with vowels in between. The standard example linguists use is from Arabic (also spoken in that region), where k-t-b is always in things related to books and writing, but the vowels make it mean different things: kitaab 'book', kataba 'he wrote', kutib 'was written', etc. Amharic, like Swahili, has a massive number of speakers: roughly 22 million. It also has an objectively cool writing system.

Semitic languages like Amharic and Ge'ez are not the only Afro-Asiatic languages, though. To the south of Lake Victoria (so, somewhere sort of near Wakanda?) Iraqw, a Cushitic language, is spoken by approximately 460,000 people (because it's spoken by a much smaller number of people, the best video I could find was about porcine cysticerosis --- tapeworm in pigs).

And of course, we've established that Xhosa is MCU head canon (I really want to know the back story of how they first arrived in Wakanda, reversing the Bantu Migration, and how they rose to power!), which means that one could expect to hear clicks in Wakanda, too.

Wakanda Forever!

Given pre-release ticket sales alone, it seems like Hollywood has been sleeping on Black Panther's type of pan-African magic just the way the rest of the world has been sleeping on Wakanda's advanced technological civilization. If we're lucky, BP is going to be a smash hit with future films, TV series, Spinoffs...and maybe we'll get to hear the sounds of Wakanda just as we hear the sounds of Essos and Valyria, Middle Earth, and Qo'noS.