Black Panther: Shining a Spotlight on Xhosa

If you went to see Black Panther at the cinema last year, then you were far from the only  one—Marvel’s second-highest-grossing film of the year raked in over one billion dollars, putting the spotlight not only on its talented actors but also its setting, the fictional Wakanda, and Xhosa, the very real language that is spoken there (and, officially, in South Africa). This week at uTalk, we’re learning a lot about Xhosa, the language of Wakanda, but also of high-profile speakers Nelson Mandela, Trevor Noah, and Miriam Makeba.

Wamkelekile kuWakanda! Welcome to Wakanda! Sadly, this line isn’t uttered in Marvel’s 2018 hit, Black Panther, but it is written in the language used for the fictional African country of Wakanda—Xhosa.

Now, if you haven’t heard of Black Panther, the story centres around T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of Wakanda, who is also the Black Panther, the protector of his people. In the movie, he returns to his homeland but when a powerful enemy related to his family tries to attack, he has to defend the nation. Like most Marvel characters, he has superpowers, but also many of his advantages come from the advanced technology developed in his nation, mostly by his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Black Panther, the movie character, first appeared in Captain America: Civil War in 2016, but the comic book character made his debut fifty years earlier, appearing in a Fantastic Four comic in July 1966! 

Black Panther made over one billion dollars at the global box office, making it the second-highest-grossing film of 2018. With the reach that this implies, it means that many people watching will likely have been exposed to Xhosa for the first time—and may want to learn more.

Why do they speak Xhosa in Black Panther?

Since Wakanda is a fictional country, its location a secret somewhere in Africa, the filmmakers could likely have used any African language when they made the film. Why choose Xhosa?

Some of it seems to have been down to the casting of John Kani, a Xhosa actor who plays T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, in both Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther. Kani is a native Xhosa speaker and both he and his son (Atandwa Kani, who also appeared in Black Panther) worked to help the dialect coach on set, advising on pronunciation and accent

Director Ryan Coogler also took a personal trip to South Africa, which helped cement the idea of using Xhosa in the film after he spent time with some Xhosa people and thought about what themes he wanted to bring to the story. While there, he saw parallels between his life as an African American and the Xhosa community, so using the language in the film was a way of reconnecting to his roots. 

As well, using Xhosa, which was only a native language for the Kanis, added some depth of realism to the film when it came to the way the actors spoke. All of the main actors are from different parts of the world (Daniel Kaluuya is British but his parents are from Uganda; Chadwick Boseman is from South Carolina; Angela Bassett is from New York) and this influenced the way they spoke Xhosa—and English, meaning there are a multitude of accents and pronunciations, just as there are in real life. Of course, once Xhosa had been chosen as the language of Wakanda, the actors had to learn their lines with these accents—which led to difficulties when it came to last-minute script changes! 

Ultimately, the choice of Xhosa, among everything else, seems to have paid off, even when only looking at box office figures. Of course, the strong story, incredible acting, a well-developed world… all these things contributed to the success of the film, but for many people, this was their first exposure to Xhosa (and likely to any African language in any detail!)—and what a way to do it!

We have a couple of lines from the film here, taken from a scene where T’Challa and T’Chaka are speaking:

T’Chaka: Yintoni engalunganga, nyana wam? (What’s wrong, my son?)

T’Challa: Andikulungele, baba. (I’m not ready, father.)

Can you say them as well as the actors do?

So, what kind of language is Xhosa?

Like Swahili and Zulu, Xhosa is a Bantu language, which means, among other things, that affixes are often used to change the meanings of words—for example, idolophu means town or city, but adding -ana, a suffix that creates a noun meaning something smaller or younger, makes the word idolophuana, which means village. 

Xhosa is, however, most famous for its click consonants, a feature it shares with other languages such as Zulu, Sesotho, and Phuthi. In Xhosa, there are eighteen clicks, which are represented in writing by the letters q, c, and x—meaning that the word ‘Xhosa’ itself begins with a click, too! 

It is thought that the click sounds were actually borrowed into Xhosa—and some other Bantu languages—from the Khoisan languages, where around forty to sixty percent of the words have clicks. It is not absolutely certain why Xhosa and other Bantu languages adopted these click consonants but is likely to be a result of contact and intermarriage between the Khoisan and Bantu people, which has led to language change over time. Another theory is that hunting communities developed these clicks so that they could sneak up on their prey and communicate with each other without being detected. Whichever it is, the click consonants have survived through to today.  

Nowadays, Xhosa is spoken by around nineteen million people, including Trevor Noah, a South African comedian who currently hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central. He has appeared on many different UK and US-based comedy shows, as well as some in South Africa at the beginning of his career, and even had a speaking role in Black Panther—though he sadly didn’t get to speak any Xhosa in it! 

Nelson Mandela was another famous Xhosa; he was born to the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, which is in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Although he passed away in 2013, Mandela is still held in great respect in South Africa and is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, as well as being described as the ‘Father of the Nation.’

And if you’re interested in practising your click sounds, then try singing along to ‘Qongqothwane,’ also known as ‘The Click Song.’ This is a marriage song from the Xhosa people, made famous in the US by Xhosa speaker Miriam Makeba—also known as Mama Africa. Her most famous song, ‘Pata Pata’, is also sung in Xhosa; see if you can sing along!

If there’s anything you’d like us to know about Xhosa, feel free to leave a comment below! If you’re interested in finding out more, then why not take advantage of a fun little discount and start learning Xhosa today? We’re sure you’ll have those click consonants down in no time!

Nqwenelela okuhle! Good luck!

Leave a Comment