The clicks play like gibberish to most ears, a chorus of sucking teeth and popping corks. But these seemingly obscure sounds make up a real language that is about to take a spin in the global mainstream.
In “Black Panther,” which opens at theaters nationwide today, the filmmakers have used isiXhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, to solidify the story’s African authenticity.
The setting is a fantastical African kingdom, Wakanda, unscathed by the horrors of colonization, a nation defiant of stereotypes, with technology that outpaces the rest of the planet and black superheroes who gamely defend their turf.
The kingdom’s official language, however, is anything but fantasy. isiXhosa, which you will hear at several points throughout the movie, is a language that more than eight million South Africans — about 15 percent of the population — claim as their mother tongue.
“To have our language incorporated in a story that big would be phenomenal,” said Namhla Mbawuli, a musician and native isiXhosa speaker who lives in Johannesburg. “It reinforces the importance of our culture, accepting our language and having pride in being Xhosa.”
What’s special about isiXhosa, and what makes it very relevant to a movie centered on black power, is that it is very much associated with the South African fight against white colonizers — even though that did not factor into the filmmakers’ decision to use it.
It was Xhosa people who engaged in a century of fighting against European colonial invaders in the Frontier Wars. More recently, some of the country’s most prominent anti-apartheid crusaders were Xhosa, including Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Thabo Mbeki and Walter Sisulu.
The language is particularly prevalent in Eastern Cape Province. It is a region where South Africans were particularly oppressed, with many living in poverty. The colonial imprint was strong there, with its many mission schools. Residents became more intellectually savvy and more deeply involved in fighting apartheid
One of the products of the Eastern Cape was the actor John Kani, who plays T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa, in “Black Panther.” Mr. Kani’s character made brief appearances in the 2016 movie “Captain America: Civil War,” and when he was on set for that film, he suggested to the directors that they incorporate some isiXhosa into the dialogue. He spoke a little bit of it, and they were sold, said Nate Moore, an executive producer of “Black Panther.”
So Mr. Kani taught some lines to Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, and they had a brief, intimate interaction speaking isiXhosa in “Civil War.”
“For a man who disapproves of diplomacy, you’re getting quite good at it,” T’Chaka tells his son in isiXhosa before T’Chaka addresses the United Nations.
“I’m happy, father,” T’Challa responds in the same tongue.
When they got to work on “Black Panther,” Mr. Moore said, the director, Ryan Coogler, “wanted to make it a priority to use Xhosa as much as possible.”
That was not always easy: It is one of the more difficult South African languages to master. So the crew tried to make sure the cast members had their lines as early as possible to practice. Dialect coaches were provided, including Mr. Kani and his son, Atandwa, who plays a young T’Chaka in the film. Mr. Boseman had another dialect coach, whom he talked to via Skype. But last-minute script changes were inevitable.
“There were a couple of days where our cast gave us the side eye,” Mr. Moore said. “They got lines that morning.”
Credit Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But with isiXhosa’s unique sound, it was worth the hassle in building the world that is “Black Panther,” Mr. Moore said.
“I think there’s something about it that feels very special because it’s not something you hear every day,” he said. “It’s not invented. There is something that feels rooted in earth and reality.”
Of course, the success of the use of isiXhosa in the film will best be judged by native speakers.
In addition to the use of dialect coaches, the filmmakers tried to use the language in natural and authentic situations, like when two native Wakandas wanted to say something to each other that the nonnatives in their presence would not understand.
The bit of isiXhosa that Ms. Mbawuli has heard so far in snippets of the film is “not bad, but could be better,” she said.
She is nonetheless excited for her native tongue to get its moment in the spotlight, and she said she appreciates what it could mean to African-Americans.
“As black Americans, your origins are from Africa,” she said. “So you have every right to want to feel part of that in whatever way or form. And I think that this is a good example of that.”