Ebonic Translators Wanted

by Translation Guy on August 27, 2010

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.


  1. Chris Carter says:

    That DEA RFP didn’t mention Spanglish, or Cracker, or Po’ Whitese. But it does list “Chimora” for Guam (misspelling the name Chamorro), “Creole” for Haiti and Jamaica and the Bahamas and Mauritius and the Virgin Islands all as one language, “Creole Patois” for Martinique but then has “French Patois” for Saint Lucia, “Finnish” which is according to the RFP spoken in “Norway and Sweden” but not Finland (same for “Lapp”), and “Serbo-Croatian” (okay, that one is just a pet peeve of mine having my own South Slavic connections). They get over a hundred languages correct, It’s odd to see some of the mistakes in the same list. But as linguist (the scientific kind, not the translation kind), I personally find the term Ebonics offensive and invalid.

  2. Ken Kennedy says:

    Ebonics was recently (in the last ten years) promoted by black people as an official language in schools in California.

  3. DLKAPA says:

    The term made the urban dictionsary: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Ebonics

  4. alewis says:

    Ebonics is better than negro dialect, that’s been thrown around some..

  5. Mark Becker says:

    I honestly refer to people who talk that way as speaking all “ghetto”. I used to work for a woman supervisor in Brooklyn and whenever a certain other black women would come up and visit her at her desk, she would adopt that ghetto affect and everyone would hear it and look at each other. All other times she was very prim and proper with her language. I also used to work with this other black woman who spoke perfectly fine with no accent at all, and when she was visited or receoved a certain caller, would adopt a Jamaican accent and use their terminology. It was bizarre. It made everyone wonder which was their “real” speaking style.

  6. The offense is not only connected to the term “negro dialect” or “ebonics” the offense lies in the premise of his statement.

  7. The correct term is Ignorance.

  8. Lol. I work at the DEA HQ, and I was thinking of forwarding this to my co-workers, but then I realized like half the people here are African-American, and it could potentially be humiliating or offensive.

  9. Terry Barton says:

    I was roundly mocked in the Public Defender’s office when I was new and did not know that “Boo” was slang and seriously thought an unusually high number of people in a certain neighborhood had the same nickname. Then someone showed me the in-office client-to-English-to-Cop thesaurus which had been compiled over the years. It was really useful for parsing transcripts of interviews and trials.

    When I was fresh out of college (lo, twenty years ago), I worked for a grants department for a state aid agency. One day at lunch one of the veterans was telling hilarious stories from the time when she was a wet-behind-the-ears social worker. One story was wholly in that black humor vein that you get working in those types of agencies. How I wish I could do this story justice. The social worker was helping a young woman get food aid for her infant. She took down the woman’s name/DOB/SSN, the infant’s name/DOB/SSN and asked for the father’s name. The woman mumbles “got hit by a train”. The social worker is horrified, says “I’m so sorry, but I have to know his name.” And the woman mumbles “got hit by a train” again. Those of you who are not middle class white women born in the early 40’s probably already see what the misunderstanding was. Unfortunately, the social worker just didn’t understand; the young woman got increasingly upset, and eventually an older social worker intervened. After the client left, the older social worker explained the situation to the younger social worker who was horrified for the next several days. Drummroll, please. . . .

    The young woman seeking aid for her baby had been “hit by a train” which is to say, she had been gang-raped. She was unable to provide the baby’s father’s name because she did not know it. Whereas the social worker simply thought the baby’s father had, well, been hit by a train and died and that the woman didn’t want to talk about it. Sort of a sick, sad world version of “who’s on first?”

  10. Janet Love says:

    Ken, I was hoping for a sample of what they want translated. Wondering if it is really that foreign or if the suits are just too stupid to figure it out.

    • Ken says:

      Janet, when it comes to the wiretap stuff, audio quality can be awful. Having an ear for the argot can make the difference between comprehension and intelligibility, the difference between a needle lost in a hay stack and a smoking gun.

  11. Vaporlock says:

    This reminds me of that scene in Airplane! when Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) tells the stewardess “I speak jive”

  12. I remember learning about ebonics in my English class it sounds like tons of coded slang but if you take the time you can surely translate it out

  13. mirrodie says:

    As an African-American who does not speak an “urban dialect”, I can see where they are coming from……the times I encounter people who do speak in this form of highly condensed slang, I find myself asking….”What? Could you repeat in a grammatically correct fashion? I have no clue what you just said….”

    ::Side Rant:: I hate it when people text me in slang!! I spend so much time deciphering the message, I usually decide not to reply!!

    ok….I had to get that out.

  14. I don’t think it’s that serious (translators!!), but I’m not at the DEA listening to the wiretaps. I don’t think it’s foreign, just different, a distinct brogue that requires the listener to sharpen their ears. This is nothing new since across the US there are several, some more foreign than others, – pidgin in Hawaii, New England, the south with the country bumpkin. Ebonics is more widespread (not confined to a region) and when you couple the Ebonics with distinct regional language, accents and deceptive communications, it can be difficult to understand. I saw a special about The Wire where they touched on the language used by the “corner boys” – language unique to Baltimore, very interesting.

  15. This will secure some jobs for teenagers… And failing rappers

  16. Ryan Conner says:

    Imagine the fire storm if Rush Limbaugh had said this..

  17. Andrew-R says:

    It would be more accurate to call them Urban Slang interpreters. I wonder if Ebonics is what the DEA is calling it, or is this the reporters term?

  18. Kolobokman says:

    Reminds me of an amusing story but the use of “ebonics” brings out the best/worse in me.I have a very low tolerance level for it and guys in the shop are used to how politically incorrect I am :)

    I work Saturdays and a few of us techs usually pile in a car and go to a pizza joint or whatever and get lunch.

    This one particular Sat I was the driver and we decided to hit up the local BK drive through.I gave the nice young lady our cumulative order and proceeded to the pick up window.

    I paid the cashier and everything was fine until she gave me my change,where she said: “Fiddy ay cen yo chain” as if it were all one word.There was complete silence while my friends waited for my response which they knew was forthcoming.

    “Sweetheart,you’ll still be working here when you’re 50yrs old if you don’t learn better English,the proper enunciation is Fifty eight cents is your change sir”.

    “Wiseazzmofocrakas” was the best come back she had,so we went back to the shop with a pleasant memory.

  19. Hurf durf the drug war is even more racist than we thought!

  20. Judy Branch says:

    SHAMEFUL CONFESSION: Sometimes, when I watch black comedians, I have to turn on closed-captioning to understand the jokes. (I also have to do this when watching BBC comedies.)

  21. Perhaps if J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t a self-hating transvestite who may have been “passing for white,” they wouldn’t have to actively recruit “ebonics” speakers politics wouldn’t be so focused on dirty dirty sex our country wouldn’t be so fucked up… oh never mind

  22. RealHigh says:

    Wow, they actually used the term “ebonics.” I was expecting them to try to be a bit more politically correct about it, by using a phrase like “Inner-city Slang,” or, if they must involve race “Black Urban Slang.”

  23. Jaspike says:

    African American Vernacular English might have been less controversial…

  24. I personally could use an interpreter for everyone with heavy Southern accents. And small children, who tend to sound like tea kettle whistles to me.

  25. Hazel Lloyd says:

    A few years ago, I was working in an adult novelty store which was, otherwise, staffed by 20something girls from East New York, Harlem and the South Bronx. All of them could code-switch between AAVE and standard English with remarkable ease. After weeks and weeks of 12-hour-long shifts with these girls, I found myself, in moments of extreme stress, breaking into AAVE myself. Like cursing in Russian, it felt a lot more cathartic than your standard “fuck you buddy.” The girls found it hilarious. Why? Because having been the Only White Guy in a majority of my classes in high school and parts of college, I had all the phrasing and vocabulary down but I could never, ever get the right cadence. I assume that, to them, it was like watching a Speak & Spell try to give someone a verbal tongue-lashing.

  26. Something tells me that other, more lucrative, contracts await those with a close understanding of >>every single ‘baddie language’ in the world

  27. I’ve heard and read the term ‘Ebonics’ used countless times in many contexts, without mention of its offensiveness, and have never heard of the term ‘African American Vernacular English’ outside of this thread. So I guess my question is: Where does one go to find out definitively what the preferred terms are and which ones are considered racist? Genuine question.

  28. Hazel Wu says:

    I grew up as one of a handfull of white kids in otherwise black and hispanic schools. I was actually worrying about this recently as I was becoming more aware of the phenomenon. I slip into the vernacular whenever I’m talking to someone who is also using the vernacular or, like you, in moments of extreme stress. I worried that it might be considered offensive, but then I realized I’d been doing it all my life and no one had ever even noticed, even in confrontations where the other party would have been looking for such a thing. I guess that means I’m fluent? But, no DEA, I will not work for you.

  29. Leo Adkins says:

    The list of 114 languages also includes “Lapp”, which is definitely considered derogatory – at least in Scandinavia. The preferred term would be Sami. (Sami is also not a language, but a group of languages, not all of which are mutually intelligible.)

  30. There is slang in every language, do we really need experts in Southern California Barrio-onics, or Northern Georgia Meth Freak-onics? Seems to me a quick typist and the Urban Dictionary could work out just fine.

  31. Sarah Fox says:

    The really unfortunate part of this story, is that by equating the argot of the drug dealers with AAVE or Ebonics, the DEA is unwittingly stating that speakers of these non-standard sociolects are essentially equivalent. In short, a federal agency is saying “blacks are drug pushers”.

  32. Kim Matthews says:

    Note, again, that English is on their list of languages that they require linguistic help with. English, which all DEA officers (presumably) speak.

  33. Jerome Joyce says:

    First Jive Dude: Shiiiiit, maaaaan. That honky muf’ be messin’ mah old lady… got to be runnin’ cold upside down his head, you know?
    Second Jive Dude: Hey home’, I can dig it. Know ain’t gonna lay no mo’ big rap up on you, man!
    First Jive Dude: I say hey, sky… subba say I wan’ see…
    Second Jive Dude: Uh-huh.
    First Jive Dude: …pray to J I did the same ol’ same ol’!
    Second Jive Dude: Hey… knock a self a pro, Slick! That gray matter backlot perform us DOWN, I take TCB-in’, man!
    First Jive Dude: Hey, you know what they say: see a broad to get dat booty yak ’em…
    First Jive Dude, Second Jive Dude: …leg ‘er down a smack ’em yak ’em!
    First Jive Dude: COL’ got to be! Y’know? Shiiiiit.

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