For the film Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler created a Wakandan writing system partially based on real African writing systems. Well that's what this and other news articles say, but if you look at how it's used, for example in the film's intertitles, it's clearly only a transliteration alphabet of English:

An example of an intertitle using the Wakandan writing

The English translation

You can see here how the letters are 1-1 mappings of the very non-phonemic English spellings.

Now in the film, when the characters aren't speaking English, they are actually speaking Xhosa. (I'm not sure if in-universe that they are meant to be speaking Xhosa, or if Xhosa is just used to represent what would be a distinct Wakandan language in-universe, possibly related to Xhosa.)

Is any of the Wakandan writing in the film used to write Xhosa? Or any other African language, or even an actual conlang?

  • Is "busan, south korea" really a good example of "very non-phonemic English spellings"? The digraphs "ou" and "th", sure, but for English those aren't too bad -- and plenty of other Latin orthographies use digraphs, after all. "Busan, South Korea" is probably spelled more phonemically than the average English words due to the fact that they're mostly not native English words.
    – Sparksbet
    May 2 '18 at 21:23
  • @Sparksbet with those vowels it's enough of an example.
    – curiousdannii
    May 2 '18 at 22:11
  • Oh it's a fine example, I just think "very non-phonemic" is a bit hyperbolic.
    – Sparksbet
    May 2 '18 at 22:11
  • @Sparksbet Right, I didn't mean that this example is particularly non phonemic, but that English spelling on general is very non phonemic now.
    – curiousdannii
    May 2 '18 at 22:13
  • Ah, fair enough then.
    – Sparksbet
    May 2 '18 at 22:14

It's important to note that there were two Wakandan scripts used in the set design of Black Panther -- one is the transliteration alphabet seen here, while the other is a se of symbols based on Nsibidi that is more logographic in nature. They were used on different parts of the set, with the more logographic script occurring in a lot of the more traditional contexts and the alphabet occurring more widely throughout the set.

The Omniglot page for the script includes text written in both English and Xhosa using the script, but the Xhosa text seems transliterated from the romanized orthography for Xhosa. That said, since the author described the alphabetic script as a "more evolved" version of the logography, it's possible that it was deliberately designed to be similar to the Latin transliteration of Xhosa? Granted, that doesn't seem particularly in-character for the Wakanda depicted in the film, but who knows. Perhaps we'll learn more about the script in the inevitable sequel.

I think we can say that the alphabetic script is not only used to transliterate English as it is in the title cards. Consider this image from the article, which features portions of some Wakandan signs:

image of the streets of Wakanda with several signs in Wakandan scripts

The glyphs on the rightward sign are difficult to make out and may be part of the logographic script, but those on the leftward sign read "DJO" in the Wakandan script -- as neither DJO nor OJD are allowable clusters in English, it seems unlikely that this is a portion of an English word transliterated into the alphabet.

However, it definitely is used to transliterate English even outside of the title cards. Let's look at the text on the throne in this poster:

image of black panther sitting on a throne decorated with Wakandan symbols

The text on the lefthand side of his throne clearly reads "WISDOM" and the righthand text reads "LOYALTY" -- obviously an English transliteration. This is particularly egregious given that this is the king's throne, which arguably shouldn't feature the modern Wakandan script at all, much less Wakandan being used for English. However, it is admittedly a poster, so it's not really properly in the movie -- I cannot find a screenshot of the base of the throne from the actual film, so I can't say whether the text is the same there.

The alphabetic script is frequently used in the set design of the lab, but the only screenshots I can find of it are either too blurry to make out or just feature simply the glyphs overlapping each other for aesthetic in a screensaver-esque fashion.

  • 4
    The "DJO" on the shop sign could be an acronym (like, eg, "KFC"), so it's possible it is still just a transliteration. May 3 '18 at 7:55
  • @OliverMason Unlikely unless you know of an existing DJO abbreviation that would make sense there -- it's more likely they just used random letters than it is that they worldbuilt an organization and transliterated its abbreviated name.
    – Sparksbet
    May 7 '18 at 15:02
  • 3
    It's an invented culture, so of course I don't know any abbreviations that would make sense. My point was that it does not have to be an allowable cluster of letters, as "KFC" is not allowable in English, so it could be a random acronym. I think, however, that we're both agreeing on what it is likely to be. May 8 '18 at 8:26
  • @Sparksbet How are they different words? You mean the glyphs going down the curved part of the wall on either side of the throne, right? It's obvious they are the same characters, so clearly they are the same word. Whether that's 'wisdom' or 'loyalty' or something else I don't know.
    – jastako
    Nov 8 '20 at 20:20
  • @Sparksbet From the Omniglot page: "According to Raven, this means 'meeting-or-congress hall for the panther king and nation'. Source: themarysue.com/black-panther-poster-teaser"
    – jastako
    Nov 8 '20 at 20:26

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