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.