From Ebonics to Argot

by Translation Guy on September 1, 2010

The DEA’s decision to recruit speakers of Ebonics―or African American Vernacular English (AAVE)―to listen in on wiretaps made for a brief brouhaha in the media a few days ago. But criticism focused mainly on the term Ebonics, which seems to be a trigger word for some of the racial divisions that dog American society.  No one objected much to the basic premise, which is the need for specialists to help cops understand perp-speak. See my previous post and the ensuing comments.

But it got me thinking. We do our share of wiretap translation in other languages, and have found that people engaged in professional criminal enterprises prefer not to be understood by the law or other eavesdroppers. On more than one occasion, we’ve run into a wall when we’ve run up against an argot. Which is what you would expect from a secret language. “Under the strictest definition, an argot is a proper language, with its own grammar and style. However, such complete secret languages are uncommon, because the speakers usually have some public language in common, on which the argot is largely based. Argots are mainly versions of other languages with a part of its vocabulary replaced by words unknown to the larger public.” I wondered if the perps at the other end of the wiretap are actually speaking AAVE at all!

Noted social critic Boyce Watkins is sceptical. From a recent post, DEA Seeks Ebonics Experts to Help with Cases…Seriously:

“The first thought that came to mind was whether the agency is presuming that drug dealers speak a dialect of English that matches that of the rest of urban black America?

“Sure, there are going to be similarities, but most of my urban friends don’t understand drug dealers either.

“Dealers don’t just sound like rappers, but actually structure a variation of language and sophisticated codes that nearly anyone would have trouble translating.

“I think that the idea of grabbing some Harvard linguistics professor to translate wiretaps might be an expensive and counterproductive way to reach the DEA’s objectives. Instead, they would likely need someone with their finger on the pulse of the streets (someone who lives where the dealers live and work) to understand how things change as time goes by.”

Makes sense to me, except for the part about using Harvard linguistic professors to transcribe wiretaps. DEA doesn’t offer tenure to their transcribers for one thing.

Slang changes fast, and it can be killer tough for a linguist to do the jargon if they’re not in-country anymore. (How’s that for translation argot? Here’s another one: “Did the LSP put the MT in the TM before alignment?” or “TeNT this, you linear one-passer? This reads like you’re working into your C language!”  For you civilians out there, them’s fighting words in translation industry jargon.)

OK, now that I’ve exposed the dark belly of translation world argot, I’ve got to go. Secret languages are fun. So I’ll be back with more on argots soon. And so will you. Consider it an offer you can’t refuse.


  1. Ben West says:

    Why not just use African Americans. Just another form of black on black, this time for a positive outcome…

  2. Faye Norman says:

    Ken, I love your style, you sort of have your own argot… Anyway, I’d love for you to post your thoughts about ‘Thieves’ cant’ it’s so interesting to me. Keep up the awesome posts! :-)

    • Ken says:

      My own personal argot! So that’s why no one knows what I’m talking about.

  3. benkingery says:

    Be very, very, VERY careful if you use “nigg*r”; it is a extremely insulting term from the times of slavery for african americans; while it may be used as a “friend” word, it can still be taken VERY seriously.

  4. jaslake says:

    I love the 60’s slang. Take circus wagon for example: a car, usually lowered, with an outlandish paint job, but in lousy shape, mechanically… Lol… Oh I still use it today!

  5. Its usually the cool kids who want to shut out the uncool kids who create the new terms, but on another level its also Lawyers who speak in legalese, that try to shut out everyone except their own bad selves… are some slang terms from New Zealand ok?
    Shielas = Females
    Fush n Chups = Fish n chips
    Pommy= English people
    Ocker= Australian
    Sheep= Australian playmate
    Minge= A womans happy place
    Peenywacker= A mans happy place
    Strewth mate= Its the truth mate
    Chuptu?= what are ya up to? What are you doing.
    Hoon= Boy racer
    Wicked= Good
    Chur chur= Gidday
    Satdee= Saturday
    New Zillind= New Zealand

    • Ken says:

      So Greg, are all you kewl Kiwis trying to shut out the rest of the English speaking world? You guys have gotten so cocky ever since “Lord of the Rings.”

      • LOL, yes Ken – it is the land where The Lord of the Rings was filmed, and if you’ve seen any or all of the three movies, you’ll be struck, at close hand, by the wondrous landscapes of this wondrous land. New Zealand’s wild, elemental beauty made it the perfect locale for filming Lord of the Rings. For this is a raw land of sheer mountains, icy glaciers, swift flowing rivers and geysers that spout from the hot earth…

  6. ehassell01 says:

    Can’t they just analyze prison language, prison inmates and prison gangs? I’m sure that those peeps (my argot plug) keep it fairly fresh, no?

  7. cnt test dem bad man words!!!!keep dem locked up init. can cum in useful!anyway breddaz im owt get me PEACE!!

  8. CDPRINT says:

    This is what community is for – use the good people in the bad enighborhoods. Pay them well and get them an ‘exit’ when they’ve done a good job. That way, the poor blacks of America will not have to lean on the bad guys to survive.

  9. Marsha Chang says:

    They need a new version of Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Captain Grose!

  10. Dawg: It’s a pronunciation spelling of the word dog. If someone’s “my dawg,” he or she is my friend. If someone’s a “dawg,” he or she is promiscuous. I can also “dawg” something–If I’m hungry, I’ll dawg my food, meaning that I’ll eat a lot of it in a hurry. And in sports, you can “dawg” the other team. If you got beat 20 to nothing in a soccer game, you got dawged.

  11. bigbikkiens-lots of money

  12. Dana Cain says:

    Kipe = to steal

  13. dcgrove says:

    Freedom of speech is great and I would promote the use of language to bring people together any day, but often, using argot identifies someone as a well versed member of a group. It is meant to be deliberately alienating, and can often be derisive and derogatory when it references people outside of the group. Many groups which are marginalized anyway use language which is heavily weighted with argot to highlight their differences. As a result, many people associate argot with the lower classes, criminality, and geeks, considering argot a “hermetic language” which promotes isolation rather than togetherness.


  15. Fraser says:

    How about “Shine it on” – to not give it much thought; just forget about it.

  16. Brett Snyder says:

    Good luck in staying on topp of it since popular culture often idealizes marginal groups, terms taken from argot fall in and out of fashion, depending on what group is being idolized at the moment.

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