The DEA is seeking Ebonic translators to help interpret drug investigation wiretapped conversations, and that has got some people stirred up. Ebonics, a.k.a. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), is one of 114 languages that DEA agents require to understand in order to conduct investigations in the southeastern US.
AP reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration recently sent memos asking a bunch of language service providers for nine translators in the Southeast who are fluent in Ebonics. We were not contacted.
Linguist Robert Williams started calling AAVE “Ebonics” (combining “ebony” and “phonics”) in 1975, and the term saw some use in scholarly circles, but the concept really took off after The Oakland School Board decided “to denote and recognize the primary language (or sociolect or ethnolect) of African American children attending school, and thereby to facilitate the teaching of standard English.” But to make Ebonics an educational priority for kids in any form seemed like a really bad idea. This kicked off a national frenzy over whether Ebonics was vernacular speech, a dialect, or even fit for use.
Since that controversy, Ebonics has been a pretty controversial term, which at every public utterance is sure to attract the attention of journalists and bloggers faced with a blank screen and an approaching deadline.
The DEA sure seems to be milking it for laughs this time. Special Agent Michael Sanders explains, “You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court. You need someone to say I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.'” (“Ballin” BTW means living the life, and “pinching pennies” isn’t Ebonics at all, so you can see why the DEA needs these translators, I guess.)
“It has nothing to do with racial issues,” says Sanders. “It is a type of language recognised by different linguist services.” (Author’s note: we don’t offer it on our website). Another DEA official said there was nothing “racial” about the hiring effort, identifying the white rapper Eminem as “one of the best speakers of Ebonics there ever was.”
I love it when cops do Chris Rock. And the simultaneous fascination and contempt directed at AAVE in American pop culture is a fascinating subject all its own. By that I mean, is Eminem an emulation of Black Rappers’ modern-day minstrel show, or a vanguard of a post-racial society? But that’s a stick of dynamite for another day. In the meantime, a quick zeitgeist check on Ebonics with a Google image search. Not nice.