Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why I Love the Lip Plates in Black Panther [No Spoilers]

To an average white Westerner, generically ignorant about the history and traditions of indigenous peoples all over the world (I speak only, of course, for myself), the lip plates worn by some African people—and a few indigenous peoples in other parts of the world—are the epitomizing symbol of a primitive, alien culture.  This particular body modification, in which the lower lip is sometimes stretched to 20 cm in diameter, seems impractical, extreme, perhaps even horrifying.

But if we set aside our cultural biases and examine the practice objectively, we must ask: is it any more bizarre than, say, plastic surgery—subjecting oneself to an invasive medical procedure and risking the complications associated with anesthesia and infection for the sake of better conformity to ideals of beauty?  Or tattoos—using dozens of tiny needles to painfully inject ink deep into the dermis?  Practices that, yes, we might be judgmental about, but we don’t look upon as particularly extreme, and certainly not as primitive?  Indeed, Shauna LaTosky, an anthropologist who lived among the Mursi people for several months, compares their tradition of lip-stretching to her own choice to wear painful three-inch stiletto heels to dance competitions (LaTosky 384).

LaTosky interviewed Mursi women—the only gender in that culture which wears lip plates—about their own feelings about the practice and found a range of attitudes that, in hindsight, should be unsurprising.  Many of the women considered their lip plates to be a source of pride, and when wearing them, believed that they walked with a more upright bearing and felt more confident in public and around the men in their lives (388).  But other women, particularly some younger women, worried that foreigners would stare at or mock them (391-2).  For similar reasons, some young men also expressed a preference for women who had chosen not to stretch their lips (396).  And the local government, which had been backed by the USSR for a couple of decades, had repeatedly threatened to ban the practice and considered it “uncivilised” and backward (396-7).

The film Black Panther prominently features a man—credited as “River Tribe elder” and presumed by some audiences to be Nakia’s father—wearing a moderately-sized plate in his lower lip, as well as a pair of plates in his stretched earlobes.  The plates are always fashionably color-coordinated with his clothing, both during T’Challa’s coronation, when he wears traditional attire, and during a meeting of the elders, at which he wears a bright green Western-cut suit.  Among the scenes of street life in the Wakandan capitol, we also see a young man wearing a lip plate, showing off some futuristic Wakandan tech to his friends, who are not wearing lip plates.

In Wakanda the lip plates are clearly unremarkable—no more attention-grabbing than a nice pair of stilettos.

Wakanda is meant to represent Africa in its purest form, unbothered by colonization, the slave trade, or Western influence of any kind.  One might imagine that a culture free to evolve without the pressure of Western judgments about what is fashionable and attractive—that is uninfluenced by and, frankly, uninterested in Western ideals of beauty—would not feel the need to abandon its time-honored dress in the way that even a highly traditional tribe like the Mursi feel now.

By presenting these lip plates as ordinary accessories, worn by a respected and fashionable person in a highly modern world, without comment, Black Panther throws our Western assumptions about beauty and fashion back in our faces.  It points out, blatantly, that beauty is cultural, that the West does not have a monopoly on determining what is attractive or fashionable, that there is nothing inherently primitive or uncultured about traditional African accoutrements like lip plates.

Quite the contrary.  The entire film is a celebration of both past and future Africa—a love letter to the religions, fashions, and even languages of pre-colonialist Africa and a statement about their intrinsic value.  It makes the bold claim that Africa has a great deal to offer the world besides its natural resources: mythologies that the West can learn from, brain power that can help move the entire planet into the 21st century, and, yes, fashions that can add color and flavor to the monochromacy of Western trends.

Work Cited:
LaTosky, Shauna. “Reflections on the lip-plates of Mursi women as a source of stigma and self-esteem.” The Perils of Face: Essays on Cultural Contact, Respect and Self-Esteem in Southern Ethiopia, edited by Ivo Strecker and Jean Lydall, LIT Verlag, 2006, pp. 382-97. Mursi Online, Oxford Department of International Development, 2013,

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Title of This Blog

“Cranberry Relish” may sound like a more fitting title for a food blog than a language blog (or perhaps an advice column by the Pioneer Woman), but there is punny linguistic explanation behind it.

First I have to explain a couple of technical terms: morpheme, and more specifically, cranberry morpheme.

In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest unit that has meaning.  A morpheme can be a whole word, like cat or run, or it can be part of a word, like the -ing in writing or the un- in unclear.  The word unhurriedly is made up of four morphemes: un-hurry-ed-ly.  Each affix adds meaning to the root morpheme hurry, but we also understand their meanings independent of the word they’re attached to: un- means “not” or “contrary to”; -ed indicates past tense; and -ly means roughly “in this manner” or “like this.”

A cranberry morpheme is a special type of morpheme that looks like it should have an independent meaning, but that meaning has been lost to time.  The term is derived from the cran in cranberry.  The meanings of morphemes in other berry names are fairly straightforward: a blueberry is a blue berry; a blackberry is a black berry; a straw berry is a berry that grows on the ground (in the straw).  The cran in cranberry looks as though it should follow a similar pattern, but what is a cran?

The English word cranberry comes from the German word Kranbeere, literally “crane-berry.”  It may be a reference to the shape of the flower, which resembles the head and neck of a crane.  The pronunciation difference in English between cran and crane led to the dissociation of cranberries from cranes, and the morpheme cran lost its independent meaning.

The were in werewolf is another fun one.  The werewolf myth has existed in western culture for hundreds of years, and in Old English, wer simply meant “man”—a werewolf was a “man-wolf.”  The word wer has been lost in English, so the morpheme were is now a cranberry morpheme; it no longer has an independent meaning.  Interestingly, though, fantasy writers have reappropriated it to refer to any person who can shapeshift into an animal.  Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery series (adapted into the TV series True Blood) features weretigers, werepanthers, and werefoxes, as well as werewolves.  In this way, the cranberry morpheme were has acquired a new meaning.

One more of my favorites: the cob in cobweb.  As a child, I thought that spider webs and cobwebs were two different things—that spider webs were made by spiders, but cobwebs were made of dust.  It’s an understandable mistake, since the word cobweb doesn’t seem to have anything to do with spiders.  Cob is another cranberry morpheme, its original meaning buried in our language’s long and complicated history.  It comes from the Old English word for spider: attercoppe, literally “poison head.”  Say “coppeweb” a few times fast and it quickly turns into “cobweb.”

The second half of the title Cranberry Relish is a play on the double meaning of relish: a condiment usually made of chopped ingredients, but also enjoyment of or delight in something.  This blog is meant to, among other things, convey my delight in all things linguistic, cranberry morphemes included.

I shopped this title among a few friends before I created the blog.  I got consistently negative feedback, but by then I was too attached to it to consider anything else, so it stuck.

Still to come: Nectarine Mustard, Chokecherry Gravy, and Kumquat Tapenade.  Stay tuned.

Book Review and Discussion: Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos (1988)

Imagine a test for cancer that is 98% accurate. Now assume that 0.5% of the population has cancer. That means in a test group of ...