Bruce Banner in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): It’s a word in an African dialect meaning ‘thief’… in a much less friendly way.
Phil Coulson in Thor (2011): Get somebody from linguistics down here.
As excited as I was back in 2011 to learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a linguistics division, I was equally upset in 2015 to learn that Marvel does not. So here we go: Wakandan may be fictional, but it is not an “African dialect.” That’s because there’s no such thing as an African dialect! Dialects are minor variations of a common language, and as Africa is a huge continent with many diverse peoples, nations, and cultures, there is no single African language that they all share. Rather, there are thousands of different African languages that are not mutually intelligible with one another.
Africa is home to six or more language families, and each of those families contains as much linguistic diversity as the Indo-European family that English, Spanish, Russian, Sanskrit, and Greek (among many others) are all a part of. Based on Wakanda’s supposed location in the Marvel Cinematic Universe near real-life Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, the Wakandan language is probably in the Afroasiatic language family. But that’s still a family with over 300 distinct languages in it.
Some Afro-Asiatic languages have multiple dialects, but Age of Ultron didn’t call Wakandan a dialect of a real language like Oromo (a plausible candidate, given the region). It didn’t even call it Afroasiatic. Instead, this line in a blockbuster with a budget of over two-hundred-million dollars called Wakandan “an African dialect.”
Why does this matter? Because referring to a dialect of a continent implies that that continent is home to a single common language, as Africa is most certainly not. Because Africa is not monolithic, although it’s often treated that way in Western cinema. Because Marvel is owned by Disney, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars perfecting this film, but didn’t think it was a priority to spend any of that money on a consultant who knew anything about Africa. Because Africa itself was so obviously not a priority here.
This was a small line in a major motion picture, mainly included to set up the connection to the fictional country of Wakanda for future Marvel projects like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Black Panther (2018). But I really hope that Marvel is taking more care with how it discusses Africa in those properties than it did here.
These are excellent points, but I would like to submit a proposal that the major language spoken in Wakanda should be a Bantu language, rather than an Afro-Asiatic one. First of all, “Wakanda” certainly sounds like it fits Bantu phonology: most Bantu languages have only open syllables, and prenasalized stops are common. Secondly, this would give us a few candidate words in the language already: for example, the name of that language would be Kikanda or Sekanda following regular Bantu language naming conventions (see for example Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Kikongo and Setswana, Isixhosa, Isizulu, Sesotho). Similarly, a person from this group would probably be Akanda, several people Bakanda.
I am willing to entertain a compromise that there are both Afro-Asiatic languages and Bantu languages spoken in Wakanda, since linguistic diversity is a thing, but I still maintain that the name of the country comes from one of its Bantu languages. Well, okay, actually, w-k-n could also be a triconsonantal root in a fictional Semitic language spoken in Wakanda (it can’t be k-n-d because triconsonantal roots don’t contain consonants with the same place of articulation). There is already history to both Bantu languages reanalyzing borrowed words as if they have noun class prefixes and to Semitic languages reanalyzing borrowed words as if they’re composed of triconsonantal roots, so you could assume the borrowing happened in either direction. (But nd- sequences are more common in Bantu than in Semitic, so that’s my vote.)
Anyway, I hope there are some conlanging Marvel fans who are going to make these languages now, even if Marvel itself can’t be bothered to figure out the difference between a language and a dialect, let alone hire an actual conlanger.
How do we know what questions we can ask? What keeps us from moving words around into whatever order we want? In this week’s episode, we talk about syntactic islands: what they are, what rules can allow us to move some words across long distances in a sentence and not others, and what evidence we have from different languages to back these rules up.
Back to talking about syntax this week! We’re looking forward to hearing what people have to say.
Hey hey, new ep! And this one comes with a CONTEST:
Be the first to guess where our ~mysteriously missing~ figurine of Kanji Tatsumi, which has been in every episode ever, has gone traveling to, and you’ll win a Ling Space mug of your choosing! For srs guys, this isn’t an April Fool’s prank. ^_^
There are clues here and there, so get guessing!
We got a comment over on our video about implicatures, entailments, and presuppositions asking about the difference between upward and downward entailments, and I thought I’d bring the discussion of that point over to here, too. ^_^
So entailments are things that are 100% guaranteed to be true, assuming that the original statement is true. Like, take a sentence like “Joyce overheard her mom talking”. If that’s true, then it must also mean that Joyce overheard a person talking – after all, all moms are people.
But when we try to define groups, we often do it by referring to different sets. So let’s talk about kittens. Kittens are a kind of cat – arguably the most adorable kind – and so if we made a set of all the cats in the world, the whole set of kittens would be in it. But the set of kittens is also made up of smaller sets of kinds of kittens – Siamese kittens, Maine Coon kittens, Japanese bobtail kittens, and more. And the different kinds of entailment point us either up or down, to the larger set kittens are part of, or the smaller sets that make it up.
Let’s start with something simple: “I watched the kitten frolic”. If that sentence is true, then it entails that I watched a cat frolic; that just has to be true, too. Because the entailment goes up into the larger set of cats that frolicking kitten is part of, it’s an upward entailment. But the entailment doesn’t go down into the sets of different kinds of kittens; it could just as well have been an Abyssinian kitten or a tuxedo kitten. It’s not necessarily true about any of the smaller kitten sets.
And most sentences work like this – simple declaratives just point up. “The kitten attacked the girl’s foot”? “Adele admired the kitten”? Those just give you upward entailments. But you can find sentences that go the other way, down into the sets that make up the set you’re concerned with. Like, “The vet didn’t treat any kittens that day”. If that one’s true, then it must be true that the vet didn’t treat any tabby or Mau or Manx kittens, either – it has to hold for all the sets that make up the kitten set, and so it’s a downward entailment. But the vet could still have had adult cat patients; it doesn’t tell you anything about the larger set.
Entailments are useful from a logical perspective, but they also help solve syntactic questions, like about where we can use words like “any” or “ever”. Take a look at these sentences, where the * means it’s bad, as usual:
* The shelter has any kittens left.
The shelter does not have any kittens left.
* Many people ever frown at a kitten.
Few people ever frown at a kitten.
Words like not or few allow you to use things like “any” or “ever”, because when they show up in the right place, they give you a downward-entailing environment for your sentence. And those words are only really happy in those environments. So knowing about these entailments can help you work out whether your “any” or “ever” sentences should check out or not, and vice versa. It’s a cool point of connection between syntax and semantics. ^_^
What kinds of mistakes do kids make in their sentences? Why do we see them leaving things out so much more often than putting things in wrong? In this week’s episode, we talk about grammatical conservatism: what it means, some ways it shows up, and what it can tell us about language and how kids use it.
Coming back to acquisition’s always fun for us! Looking forward to hearing what people have to say. ^_^
Reblog for the day crew! ^_^
Yay for more language acquisition stuff!
Lisa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. Her research is at the intersection of language acquisition and computational modeling, particularly using statistical models and language data to test different theories of how little kids might pick up different aspects of language. She’s also done some research on natural language processing, too!
Lisa’s been doing some of our favourite work on acquisition over the past several years, and we’ve been talking about her work ever since the very first episode of the Ling Space. We’re really happy to get the chance to talk with her and hear what she has to say! As usual, if you have questions for her, just let us know – we’ll ask a couple in the final interview. ^_^
(Also, as a final note: the sale in our store is still going on! Everything, including our new Super Schwa shirt, is 20% off with the code 7500SUBS.)
It was incredibly fun to get to meet Lisa Pearl, and to hear her share her passion and excitement about language and research and BRAINS. I’m really looking forward to putting this interview up on the channel so you can be a part of the fun too!
How does our speech affect the world around us? How can we measure the changes that our words make? In this week’s episode, we take a look at performative language: what you need for your words to work their magic, what different parts make up our speech acts, and how our word choices can change the way we perceive and remember events.
Here’s a fun topic that bridges from philosophy to psycholinguistics! Looking forward to hearing what people have to say. ^_^
Reblog for the day crew! ^_^
As often happens, @ateliermuse‘s awesome art assets add so much to the episode. Not gonna lie, I burst out laughing at *DRAMATIZATION
hamilton: can you call me something else besides son
washington: like what
hamilton: how about ~sunrise land~