February 22nd, 2018 by Rob

If you haven’t seen Black Panther yet, go see it. It was one of the most fun action films I’ve seen in a long time, and one that embraced a pan-African aesthetic that is rare in cinema.

On International Mother Language Day, I feel justified in offering one criticism: they didn’t use enough languages from across Africa, and missed a huge opportunity to let speakers of African languages engage more directly with the characters.

This post is to correct this, and identify the languages spoken by each group of people in the film. I estimate that we could have had 10x as many African languages in the film for the cost of what Black Panther earned every 2 minutes on opening weekend.*

The only spoilers here are from the opening few minutes of the film.

Background on my love for the languages of Africa

The film begins with a meteorite crashing to earth in Wakanda. From the map they show this is somewhere in/near Uganda. We then see people at the site of the meteorite speaking the Xhosa language. Xhosa** is spoken 3000+ kilometers away in South Africa, and while some many languages in Uganda are related, they are not mutually intelligible. It is as if someone set a movie in Romania, but had everyone speak Portuguese, because Romania is in Europe and “Portuguese sounds European enough”. It is the same geographic and linguistic distance.

The movie asks us to suspend disbelief about more than a lost language. So my criticism is less about how out of place it seemed, and more about the lost opportunity to include so many more languages, and have the speakers of those languages identify much more closely with the film.

I work at the human-technology interface, which is a running theme I enjoy in Marvel films. My PhD focused on Artificial Intelligence for an African language. I’ve lived in Sierra Leone in West Africa and worked in refugee camps for the UN in neighboring Liberia. I traveled by bicycle across Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, covering more than the 3,000 kilometers that separates the fictional Wakanda from the real Xhosa, and often passing through several language regions a day, and enjoying briefly hearing each one.

Everyone identifies a film more when they hear their own language in it. In addition to Xhosa, the film has a brief scene with the Hausa language. But the Hausa scene is only about kidnappers, so this doesn’t count as the film using a language in a positive way that its speakers would want to identify with.

The languages of Black Panther!

I owe thanks to the breakdown of cultures in the film to @DiasporicBlues‘ analysis of where the different groups*** in Black Panther drew their biggest influences. I know about the languages, but less so the dress and other identifying characteristics, so I’m indebted to her identification of each culture. I’ll add the languages to each to get our list, and show her tweets for context and credit:

Zulu

A neighbor and sister-language to Xhosa, there are 12 Million Zulu speakers, also mainly in South Africa, and 16 Million more who speak it as an additional language.

Surmi and Amharic

His lip-plate looks Mursi or Suri (Surma) of Ethiopia, but they are traditionally worn by women. His dress looks more like the Les Sapeurs of Congo:

Ethiopia and Congo (esp the major cities in Congo) are a long way from each other. In the film this group guards the water, so I’m going to assume that this group in Black Panther are well-traveled Suris (27,000 speakers), who traveled up the Nile and down the Congo, where they picked up the style, and also speak Ethiopia’s most widely spoken language, Amharic (22 million speakers).

Maasai

The Maasai has 1.3 Million speakers, very close to where Wakanda is located. I’ll assume they also speak the lingua-franca of the region, Swahili, with 2 Million native speakers and up to 100 Million second-language speakers. My fiancee and I both understand a little and swear we heard Swahili greetings in the film “mzuri”, but I can’t confirm this – anyone notice and can confirm?

Southern Ndebele

Southern Ndebele is spoken by 1.1 Million people as a first language, and is closely related to Xhosa and Zulu.

Sotho

Is anyone left in Southern Africa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or did they all move north to Wakanda? Within South Africa, let’s assume that the Lesotho spoke Sesotho, the Sotho Language, with 5.6 Million speakers as a first language and 7.9 Million additional speakers.

Himba

In between Southern Africa and Wakanda, the Himba of Namibia speak Herero, which has about 192,000 speakers.

Yoruba

The word Agbada comes from the Yoruba language, so let’s assume that he is one of the 28 Million speakers … and the most lost person in this film as Yoruba is mostly spoken in and around Nigeria which is even further from Wakanda than Xhosa. To Forest Whittaker’s credit, his English accent was definitely East African, not West African.

Gisu

The final group in the film, called the “the Jabari”, aren’t discussed by @DiasporicBlues. We’re told the Jabari are from the mountains, so I’m going to say that they are Gisu, who are from around Mt Elgon in Uganda. The Gisu language has 2.7 Million speakers. My brother lived in a Gisu community and we visited him there while cycling across Africa, so I’ll admit some personal bias in asking for it to be added to the movie.

The total!

Language Native Speakers

Xhosa 8,200,000

Zulu 12,000,000

Surmi 27,000

Amharic 22,000,000

Maasai 1,300,000

Swahili 2,000,000

Southern Ndebele 1,100,000

Sotho 5,600,000

Himba 192,000

Yoruba 28,000,000

Gisu 2,700,000

Total 83,119,000

The actual languages would reach 83 Million first-language speakers in Africa, and more than double that that if we counted people who spoke these as second, third or fourth languages. That’s a big jump from 8 Million Xhosa speakers in the amount of people who speak an African language and who would engage more deeply with the film!

If Marvel won’t go back and dub these languages in, I hope they consider them for the sequel. Imagine how much more amazing it would be to see such linguistic diversity in a film!

Robert Munro
February 21 (International Mother Language Day) 2018

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* the math works out: assume it would cost $10K each for the 10 additional language coaches for the handful of lines in each language = $100K, which is 0.05% of the total budget. It look $192M in the opening 3-day weekend, so to put it another way, every 2 minutes of revenue in the opening weekend from Black Panther’s opening weekend would also cover it.

** Most languages have multiple names. For better or worse I defaulted to what Wikipedia had or the name I was most familiar with. I also left the prefixes off that literally mean ‘name’, like ‘isiXhosa’, ‘isiZulu’, ‘kiSwahili’ etc. Most of these differences are based on sub groups and personal preferences, and mostly there are no wrong or right names. Apologies if any of the spellings are wrong or offensive to you for any reason.

*** In the movie they refer to ‘tribes’. It’s 100% ok to make generalizations about a fictional tribe, that would be 100% offensive if that generalization was made about a real group of people. So, I used ‘group’ in this article to talk about a linguistic group of people sharing the same language in the real world. The languages often share the name with the tribe, but I’m not making any assumptions about tribal identity, ethnicity, or nationality beyond where it places people geographically.