real linguistics in movies



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.