Marvel’s Black Panther is a bonafide cultural phenomenon, with a current worldwide gross of over $700 million in just two weeks. But as the world gets to know Wakanda, some may wonder what language inspired the Wakandan tongue heard in the film. The language of Black Panther is indeed a real tongue, spoken by millions of people. It’s also really hard to learn, according to the film’s actors, but the importance of an authentic African language in a blockbuster superhero movie cannot be underestimated.
For Black Panther, the actors learned is isiXhosa, a Buntu language characterized by click consonants. (In fact, to correctly pronounce “Xhosa,” the “X” begins with a click.) Approximately 19 million people in the world speak Xhosa, and it’s recognized as one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, and one of the 16 languages of Zimbabwe.
It’s also very difficult to learn, and the actors of Black Panther noted that it was difficult to pick up during shooting. “The clicks are no joke,” Lupita Nyong’o, who stars in the film as Nakia, told the Associated Press. (Native speakers, of course, insist it’s easier than it seems.) Still, it was a process during shooting, where last-minute edits to the script would have the actors unlearning what they just learned.
“There were a couple of days where our cast gave us the side eye,” executive producer Nate Moore told the New York Times. “They got lines that morning.”
Valiant efforts paid off, however, as the use of Xhosa adds an extra dimension of authenticity to the fictional world of Wakanda. In the Marvel Universe, Wakanda exists as an isolated country that thrives thanks to its exclusive rights to the space mineral vibranium.
Director Ryan Coogler was inspired to use Xhosa for two reasons. The first was actor John Kani, who played T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War and reprised the role in Black Panther. Kani is a native of South Africa who speaks Xhosa.
“Ryan and I went back-and-forth and talked about it, and I said it just makes sense,” said Beth McGuire, the dialect coach of Black Panther, in an interview with Slate. “If that’s who you started with, that’s your king of Wakanda, that’s who it is, that’s the language.”
Coogler was further inspired when he took a personal trip to South Africa prior to shooting Black Panther, where he befriended local people who spoke Xhosa.
“It was a life-changing experience,” he told Rolling Stone. During the trip, Coogler befriended a hotel employee, who invited Coogler to his hometown of Gugulethu, which was full of Xhosa speakers. “I found out that his tribe – he was Xhosa – the rituals they do are very similar to things I do with my family. Like, almost identical,” Coogler described.
“And I realized, ‘Oh yeah – African-Americans truly are African. It takes a lot more than what happened to us to take that out of us.’”
That connection between Africans and the African diaspora enocuraged Coogler in his portrayal of Wakanda in Black Panther. Despite Wakanda being an isolated country hundreds of miles away from Coogler’s native Oakland, Wakanda is still a place where sisters can prank their big brothers.
Black Panther is in theaters now.