Why did Chadwick Boseman oppose the use of the British accent for Wakandians, preferring the African language Xhosa? And why did he do very well? Spoiler: Yes, clicks have something to do with it. Those clicks.
Yup, Black Panther it came out six months ago and was talked about to the death, with every single aspect of the film that has been analyzed, gutted and profusely praised. And do you know what we will do in this article? We will continue to speak well of Black Panther, because quality films deserve their praise as well-made works (and not because we are social justice warrior).
This time, in fact, I feel I want to break a spear against this film and its leading actor, Chadwick Boseman, not as a Marvel fan, and not even as a social justice warrior, but as a linguist.
Language is also part of worldbuilding
Well yes, also from a linguistic point of view Black Panther it is a very well-kept film, as it has shown a 360 ° commitment in drafting the details of worldbuilding.
In fact, among the fantastic places shown in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Wakanda is probably the best one, resulting coherent despite presenting itself as a real cauldron of peoples, gathering customs and traditions from every corner of Africa. As also happens in other valuable works, Black Panther has been able to transform internal diversity into a wealth, in a tool to arouse wonder in the viewer and to embellish their world. Without just stamping the politically correct tag of representativeness.
And if beautiful costumes and well-kept scenography are the standard for any self-respecting film (and superheroistic ones are usually no exception), attention to language is not always so obvious, especially in an environment like Hollywood, where the language in which the films are produced is English. Even in the MCU (but not only), English is the language you hear most: the Asgardians never come up with some kind of space Norse and the same aliens that generally meet speak English.
Not that too much controversy can be made about this choice: English is spoken by most of the MCU actors and is a lingua franca understood and used by over a billion people. It requires less expenses in terms of dubbing, subtitles and teachers for professionals: it costs less and is more effective.
However, using other languages also usually makes a film more realistic and, at least as far as I'm concerned, the feeling of healing increases. If then in a Marvel film Xhosa is inserted as a language spoken in Wakanda, I am a happy child.
Lo Xhosa: what is it and why is it a cool language?
That the language of Wakanda is xhosa, or isiXhosa, is quite well known and some Italian newspapers have also spoken about it (Sci-Fi.com first of all), but perhaps the historical and linguistic peculiarities of this language are less known.
In fact, the Xhosa has a particularly curious sound for us Westerners (Italians and speakers of Romance languages in particular) for two main factors: it is a tonal language and contains the clicks. So not only is it a speech that relies heavily on the cadence of accents to distinguish one word from another, but also has sounds completely absent in our phonology: i click.
It is, in fact, the unique sounds of human languages produced without emitting air from the lungs (as instead happens with vowels and consonants), but which are based on increasing the pressure inside the mouth, and then releasing it in a strong pop. To understand: when you imitate the sound of a horse's hooves by snapping its tongue into a clop-clop or when you send a noisy kiss to someone with one smack, you are making a click.
As also happens with consonants, the place of the mouth where the obstruction that blocks the air occurs determines the final sound, giving speakers the opportunity to resort to many types of clicks. In fact, in Xhosa there are 18 different clicks, one of which can also be heard in the name: "Xh", in fact, does not indicate the sound of a local "ics", nor an aspiration, but the clicking of the tongue on the palate (as you can see in this video).
So what was better, though Black Panther, of an African language characterized by a series of sounds that the western world has never heard?
Xhosa against apartheid in South Africa
We had also anticipated historical reasons for choosing Xhosa as the language of Wakanda, although in reality the production of Black Panther was driven mostly by aesthetic and convenience reasons in its selection.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to point out how in South Africa this language is strongly associated first with the fight against white colonizers and then against apartheid. In fact, from what the New York Times, amaXhosa (the Xhosa-speaking people) were the main protagonists of the Frontier War against the European invaders.
In addition, some of the major protagonists of the fight against apartheid were speakers of Xhosa, among which stood out Nelson Mandela and jazz singer Miriam Makeba (better known as Mama Africa). The latter, in particular, has undertaken to raise awareness of its western audience about the clicks of the Xhosa, which some of its listeners mistaken for random noises (an example Thu).
Who proposed Xhosa for Wakanda?
It was said that the production of Black Panther, but first also that of Civil War, had been driven to use Xhosa for aesthetic and convenience reasons, and in fact it all started with the proposal of a specific actor: John Kani, interpreter of T'Chaka, the father of T'Challa and former king of Wakanda.
In fact, Kani is a native speaker of Xhosa, also being originally from the Easter Cape Province, a region with a large concentration of speakers of this language. It was precisely the actor from T'Chaka who asked for the production of Civil War to integrate some isiXhosa into his conversations with T'Challa, and after hearing Kani speak his native language, everyone found the perfect Xhosa for the situation.
Subsequently, Nate Moore, the executive producer of Black Panther, took a lot of use of this language for the new film, assigning the actors dialect coach of Xhosa, among which John Kani and his son stood out Atandwa, who had played T'Chaka as a young man. Teaching every cast member to speak Xhosa with the right accent was certainly not easy, but in the end the native speakers found the actors good enough.
However, Marvel initially had other ideas about the Wakandians' language and accent.
Could British English have been spoken in Wakanda?
Before the exit of Civil War, at home Marvel was not sure how to present Wakanda and its inhabitants, and there was even less certainty about the language and accent they would use.
In fact, the initial idea was that the Wakandians spoke with a British or American accent: the watchword, however, was to avoid African accents. Which also seems absurd enough, given that we are talking about an African state, although it has remained isolated from the rest of the continent, but such that it would hardly have undergone so much the British influence to lose its accent.
However, Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays T'Challa, tells us, in an interview withHollywood Reporter, that he struggled to convince Marvel about the use of African accents, because "they felt that it could have been too much for the audience".
How then would the African accent have been "too much" and left to the imagination: would they have made the characters "too black" for the average white American spectator? Or would they have made the Wakandians "too backward" or "too under-educated" for our ears, accustomed to the idea that speaking a language with an accent other than the standard one is stuff to be illiterate?
We don't know, but the prejudices we can draw from are too many. However, Boseman thought that if they didn't make the African accents of the Wakandians heard, he would do the public wrong: "If I start talking in a British accent, what will happen when I get home?"
But it was also one matter of principle:
No, this point is so important that if we do without it, what else will we give up to make people feel comfortable?
And so, confronting Marvel, Boseman managed to assert his position, allowing his colleagues to bring out their accents, not only in the dialogues in English, but also in those in Xhosa, which was therefore spoken with a very personal tone. But always with an authentically African cadence.
After all this work, the English version of Black Panther to hear the original voices!
All images taken from the films Black Panther e Civil War they are Marvel property