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Justice Department Seeks Ebonics Experts
August 24, 2010 7:13 AM   Subscribe

The Smoking Gun has come into possession of an unusual RFP from the DEA: they want 'Ebonics experts' to help decipher wiretaps.
posted by reenum (76 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hurf durf the drug war is even more racist than we thought!
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:14 AM on August 24, 2010


OMG THEY ALSO ASKED FOR JAMAICAN PATOIS!!!!

In other words: I don't get it.
posted by muddgirl at 7:18 AM on August 24, 2010


***Obligatory Wire reference here***
posted by Mercaptan at 7:19 AM on August 24, 2010 [11 favorites]


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.
posted by ColdChef at 7:19 AM on August 24, 2010 [16 favorites]


Excuse me? I speak Jive.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:21 AM on August 24, 2010 [22 favorites]


Yeah, this is not in the slightest bit worthy of a post, is it? A recognised method of speaking is listed as one of a 114 point long linguistics requirement for drug enforcement department. English is listed in there too (right near it) and yet this is somehow profiling or worthy of trying to get people up in arms?

If it was only ebonics, and there was no proof of any other list of languages required, then maybe you'd have something to go on (although that could just mean that none of the DEA agents understand that dialect but do all the 114 others they come across) but until that point this is a post purely designed to create a racial slant to something that doesn't exist.
posted by Brockles at 7:22 AM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


See black people talk like this, and white people ARREST THEM.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:23 AM on August 24, 2010 [17 favorites]


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.)
posted by ColdChef at 7:24 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


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
posted by jtron at 7:26 AM on August 24, 2010


Good thing TSG didn't say the DEA was looking for someone versed in "Black Vernacular English." Then this post would be boring.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:26 AM on August 24, 2010 [9 favorites]


A recognised method of speaking is listed...

African American Vernacular English might have been less controversial.
posted by DU at 7:27 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Top-hole! Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how's your father. Hairy blighter, dicky-birdied, feathered back on his Sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harper's and caught his can in the Bertie!
posted by infinitewindow at 7:27 AM on August 24, 2010 [13 favorites]


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."
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:29 AM on August 24, 2010


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.)


I have to do that sometimes when watching "The Wire"; rapid-fire dialog in a different accent than mine isn't always the easiest to get. I always feel like somehow I shouldn't have to do so, so I'm glad to know I'm not alone.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:30 AM on August 24, 2010


I have to admit that in my darkest moments of desperate poverty over the past couple years that my social worker salary has been frozen and I've been repeatedly furloughed I wondered if I could make a couple extra bucks teaching these clowns some things.
posted by The Straightener at 7:30 AM on August 24, 2010


I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how racist the comments on The Smoking Gun are. 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.
posted by anniecat at 7:30 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Before this post blows up or gets deleted, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes incorrectly called "Ebonics", is a dialect of English. I have no clue what that job posting was about, but we'd probably be better people by not publicly highlighting and mocking their error, and rather let them gracefully correct it. The issue is charged enough as it is.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:31 AM on August 24, 2010


I've always liked this:

The woman spoke with a heavy western North Carolina accent, which I used to discredit her authority. Here was a person for whom the word pen had two syllables. Her people undoubtedly drank from clay jugs and hollered for Paw when the vittles were ready — so who was she to advise me on anything?
posted by anniecat at 7:34 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have no clue what that job posting was about

The DEA is seeking linguists who can monitor wiretaps and make fast, accurate summaries and transcriptions. I think they will also be responsible for creating a lexicon of slang or code words. For foreign languages they also require translation and interpreter services.
posted by muddgirl at 7:35 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


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.
posted by griphus at 7:40 AM on August 24, 2010 [34 favorites]


By 'I have no clue what that job posting was about', I meant 'I have no clue what the hell they were thinking when they wrote "Ebonics" instead of "AAVE" or something else less culturally-loaded, or, you know, completely ignorant.'
posted by iamkimiam at 7:41 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


We don't need more conspiracy theories about how the drug laws are basically designed to put minorities and poor people in prison. We have the data instead:

http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/node/64

Human Rights Watch’s analysis of prison admission data for 2003 revealed that relative to population, blacks are 10.1 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses.
posted by atypicalguy at 7:41 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Gazizza, dilznoofuses, this is Bill McNeal saying, get with the crazappy taste of Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor! Rocket Fuel's got the upstate prison flavor that keeps you ugly all night long. So when you wanna get sick, remember: Nothing makes your feet stank like Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor. Damn, it's crazappy!"
posted by stifford at 7:46 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Something tells me that other, more lucrative, contracts await those with a close understanding of >>every single 'baddie language' in the world<>.
posted by rongorongo at 7:53 AM on August 24, 2010


Unless they're gay.

griphus: hilarious, and I totally flashed to Neil Patrick Harris in Undercover Brother
posted by jtron at 7:58 AM on August 24, 2010


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.
posted by rocket88 at 8:01 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Where one goes to find out definitively what the preferred terms are and which ones are considered racist.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:04 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Maybe I'm being overkill (and overcommenting, sorry), but in case it isn't obvious, one of the biggest problems with this job listing is the lack of recognition that A) Ebonics is a negative, culturally-loaded and inappropriate term, and B) that it is placed in a list alongside other languages, without any clarification that what we are talking about here is actually a dialect.

This error basically both overlooks and reignites the entire 1996 Oakland & Board of Education Ebonics controversy. The more I think about it, wow, just wow. It's quite the typo.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:05 AM on August 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


I grew up as one of a handfull of white kids in otherwise black and hispanic schools too, griphus. 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.
posted by cmoj at 8:10 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


rocket88, I totally get what you're saying. AAVE, besides being tricky to say, isn't a commonly understood word (although it's gaining ground). However, the Justice Department should know it, since there's been specific legal/educational/social precedent with "AAVE" as both a replacement for the term "Ebonics" and as a dialect of English (and not a separate language).
posted by iamkimiam at 8:12 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


And small children, who tend to sound like tea kettle whistles to me.

I can't make sense of South Park, but it's more like squeaky door hinges to me.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:25 AM on August 24, 2010


Looking back at the draft history for the document (y'all can do that, too - search for the RFP number), it seems like the tables were added first, back in 2009, and the explanatory text (which does distinguish between languages and dialects) is much more recent. This seems like a case of shoddy document review. The tables were probably compiled by a non-linguist from data collected at the field offices by a non-linguist.

I guess I'm having a hard time figuring out how horrible this gaff exactly is. I'm too young to remember much about the 1996 Oakland School District controversy, besides the fact that a lot of people got real huffy when their particular standard of Proper English wasn't being privileged, and in response a lot of more reasonable people backed down. I guess until 1996, it was OK to use the term "Ebonics", but then a lot of ignorant people got upset? Or am I missing some part of the controversy?
posted by muddgirl at 8:25 AM on August 24, 2010


it was like watching a Speak & Spell try to give someone a verbal tongue-lashing

"SPELL yOuR MoTheR iS a WhOrE."
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:33 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


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.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:37 AM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Cut me some slack, Jack! Chump don’ want no help, chump don’t GET da’ help!
posted by DreamerFi at 8:42 AM on August 24, 2010


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.)
posted by Dumsnill at 8:44 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


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.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:48 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Those of you who are not middle class white women born in the early 40's probably already see what the misunderstanding was.

I have absolutely no clue and I don't correspond to that limited description. Don't keep us in suspense; you're not really doing the story justice if you don't reveal the punchline.
posted by Brockles at 8:58 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Oh, sorry. 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?"
posted by crush-onastick at 9:07 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Was his name "Gadhit Biatrayn" or was she somehow involved with the train?
posted by polyhedron at 9:08 AM on August 24, 2010


Of course.
posted by polyhedron at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2010


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.


Reading the RFP (novel, I know!), the English transcriptionists would be responsible for interpreting and keeping a lexicon of such "slang". Furthermore, the conflation of AAVE with "slang" is kind of part of my problem - to lots and lots of people, if it's not a "proper language", then it's "just slang", and if it's "just slang" then why should their linguists be funded? Agencies have a real fine line to walk.
posted by muddgirl at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have to do that sometimes when watching "The Wire"

Speaking of, wasn't this actually a plot point in season 3? Where they had to bring in someone specifically for the purpose of translating some bit of street chatter?

I hear "AAVE" and "Ebonics" used pretty interchangeably where I work, though AAVE is quickly gaining dominance.
posted by quin at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2010


"The Oakland School Board did not turn to Ebonics because of linguistic interests, but because of the acute educational problems affecting African American students in their district, and the sense that taking the children's vernacular into account might help to alleviate such problems."The Ebonics controversy in my backyard: A sociolinguist's experiences and reflections, by John Rickford, Stanford University

From Wikipedia: "On December 18, 1996, the Oakland, California school board passed a controversial resolution recognizing the legitimacy of "Ebonics" — i.e. what mainstream linguists more often term African American Vernacular English — as a language. The resolution set off a maelstrom of media criticism and ignited a hotly discussed national debate.

For students whose primary dialect was "Ebonics," the Oakland resolution mandated some instruction in that dialect, both for "maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills." This also included the proposed increase of salaries of those proficient in both "Ebonics" and Standard English to the level of those teaching LEP (limited English proficiency) students and the use of public funding to help teachers learn AAVE themselves.

[emphasis mine]
The Oakland School Board's intentions were good, but the way they attempted to address this problem was doomed by a lack of understanding about the language issue and a misguided approach in addressing it. This was not received well, as the public and media largely misunderstood and misrepresented what was happening. A lot of this hinged on the classification of Ebonics as a full-blown language, as well as the motivations for teachers in "teaching it" in classrooms (people thought that Ebonics instruction would be given under this proposal, like you would French, Spanish, German, etc.). Many people, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, misread the proposal and condemned it, but later reversed his position, saying, "They're not trying to teach Black English as a standard language. They're looking for tools to teach children standard English so they might be competitive."

While the proposal was flawed and confusing to interpret, much of the vitriolic response was also fueled by racism and stereotypes about language, culture and education. And there were further language-related complications, like the ambiguously-worded "genetically based" phrasing in the original resolution, which just made the whole problem worse. At the same time, the media and pop culture is rampant with racist and demeaning games, websites and commentary about black people, Oakland, "uneducated or lazy" speech, "uppityness" and "privilege", etc.

Also from John Rickford's article, showing another broader implication and outcome of this debate:
"The US Senate Hearing on Ebonics. A number of linguists and educators (William Labov, Orlando Taylor, Robert Williams and Michael Casserly) joined educators from Oakland (including Superintendent Carolyn Getridge) in providing pro-Ebonics testimony at the US Senate Hearing on Ebonics on January 23, 1997. Several other linguists who could not be present (including myself) submitted letters to be read into the Senate record. This Hearing was a crucial event, since it was chaired by Senator Arlen Specter, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which oversees the Title I education funds that support the Standard English Proficiency [SEP] program, in use in over 300 California Schools. Oakland's Ebonics resolutions were essentially a proposal to expand the SEP program--which involves contrastive analysis of Ebonics and Standard English--within its school district. Many of us feared that in the anti-Ebonics firestorm which was sparked by Oakland's proposals, Specter's subcommittee would yank title I funding from the SEP.

However, Senator Arlen Specter seemed to be impressed with the testimony. (A videotape of the hearing is available from C-SPAN, which provided TV coverage of it in its entirety.) Not only did he NOT withdraw funding for SEP, but he later supported a line item in the 1997 appropriations budget providing $1 million for research on the relation between the home language of African American students and their success in learning to read and write in Standard English. The research will be jointly conducted in Oakland (under the direction of Etta Hollins), and in Philadelphia (under the direction of William Labov). An attempt to curtail SEP funding at the State level, through California Senate Bill 205 introduced by California State Senator Raymond Haynes, was also defeated, in April 1997."
I tried to find other words that didn't start with 'mis', but I clearly failed. Sorry for all the morphological redundancy redundancy.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


As Dr. Boyce Watkins writes:
When I heard that the DEA was considering such a move, I could almost appreciate their intentions, but I think they may be a bit misguided. The first thought that came to mind was whether or not they are presuming that drug dealers speak a dialect of English, which 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. Rather than hiring an ebonics expert to understand the lingo of drug dealers, they'd be better off hiring a former drug dealer.
And as I wrote at Johnson, where I found that link, "An extraordinarily sensible suggestion, which of course will not be implemented, or even seriously considered. Just think of the frothing at the idea that the government was hiring drug dealers!"
posted by languagehat at 9:18 AM on August 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


As another commenter at Johnson wrote:
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".
posted by languagehat at 9:20 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Sometimes I have to translate for my wife when someone is speaking with a think Mexican accent and then I call her Mrs. Rockefeller
posted by shakespeherian at 9:20 AM on August 24, 2010


That's just dope, [REDACTED].
posted by clvrmnky at 9:22 AM on August 24, 2010


The 1996 Oakland school board controversy has always confused me. They identified the dialect as a language in order to get greater funding to train teachers to speak in their student's vernacular, provide more resources in language courses, and recognize the *validity* of the dialect.

But because they used a word that smelled racist, it blew up. I think it's typical of America that we pay more attention to phrasing and political politeness than we do to well meaning policy that actually has the capacity to help people.
posted by keratacon at 9:24 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks for that link, languagehat. That's really fascinating, although I guess not surprising. It make sense that what you're dealing with at this level is not simply a dialect difference, but a much more complicated system of communication which needs decoding.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:24 AM on August 24, 2010


I guess where I keep getting stuck upon is that there's no real good delineation between something considered a "language" like Creole and something considered a "dialect" like AAVE. It starts to get really political in a surprisingly muddy way.

It make sense that what you're dealing with at this level is not simply a dialect difference, but a much more complicated system of communication which needs decoding.

But that distinction exists for every "language" on their list. It's why they specifically require their linguists to make a slang lexicon. In fact, they specify over and over that their greatest need is Spanish translators, without specifically noting that the Spanish is probably slang-heavy.
posted by muddgirl at 9:29 AM on August 24, 2010


Note, again, that English is on their list of languages that they require linguistic help with.

English, which all DEA officers (presumably) speak.
posted by muddgirl at 9:30 AM on August 24, 2010


Ruthless Bunny: "There is slang in every language, do we really need experts in Southern California Barrio-onics, or Northern Georgia Meth Freak-onics?"

AAVE is not a collection of slang words. It is a dialect of English, with a complete and distinct set of grammatical rules, spanning all areas of linguistic structure, from the phonetic to sociolinguistic. Here are just a few of the features of this dialect, sampled from the Wikipedia page on AAVE:
There is near uniformity of AAVE grammar, despite vast geographic area. This may be due in part to relatively recent migrations of African Americans out of the South (see Great Migration and Second Great Migration) as well as to long-term racial segregation. Phonological features that set AAVE apart from forms of Standard English include: Some really cool stuff going on with Tense and Aspect, too.
Basically, Ruthless Bunny, I hope to God you were joking. But if not, there's a little something to get you started down a new path of exploration, if you wish.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:30 AM on August 24, 2010 [22 favorites]


yeh, muddgirl, i think I shouldn't have used the word slang. What I meant was it's less like trying to listen in on either a substantially different from standard dialect or slang-riddled speech and more like trying to understand someone speaking in code. Sure, you can learn a code, like you can learn a language, but like languagehat pointed out: they don't need translation from dialect English to English; they need someone who can crack a code that's neither.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:39 AM on August 24, 2010


If they're going where I hope they're going with this, they'd hire a sociolinguist who is versed in AAVE to work directly with informants who have local street experience with the culture and the specific community that they are investigating. That community will have its own regionalisms, register and specific sub-dialect features. Just because we know how to speak a language or dialect, or can code-switch or use slang, we don't necessarily have the analytical knowledge or tools to decipher what different uses, changes or speech patterns mean in a way that is useful and meaningful to an investigation. The linguist is the bridge between the informant (who knows the street speak, including, yes, slang) and the investigative crew/court/police.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:39 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Indeed languagehat, the particulars of the RFP would exclude those with any felony conviction and in keeping with their policies, even a derogatory credit history has to be cleared up before one can be engaged as a contractor on this bid (which closed last July, in case any of you were thinking about a moonlighting career in AAVE).

See Section H.D.1 at Linguist RFP No. DJD-10 R-0004.

i was concerned when I read the FPP that this was going to be a LOLebonics thread. I am so happy MeFites have by and large refused the bait. I am still not sure that this Smoking Gun link is a good FPP, but in light of the tone of discussion herein, I guess it has become one in spite of its beginnings.
posted by beelzbubba at 9:42 AM on August 24, 2010


If I could have linked to something besides the Smoking Gun, trust me, I would have. All articles or blog posts I saw linked back to the Smoking Gun content. This has been a topic that has often interested me.

My cousins who work at a large multinational company have noticed an easy shift between "formal" English and AAVE. When black employees are hanging out together, the AAVE seems to slip out more often than not, but when dealing with a mixed group, it rarely does so.

That particular anecdote might also bring up identity issues and the like, but it reminds me of folks such as myself, who are fluent in 2 or more languages and have little to no problem, cognitively, moving between them.

Good to see that MeFites have risen above (for the most part), the LOLEbonics bait.
posted by reenum at 10:13 AM on August 24, 2010


Basically, Ruthless Bunny, I hope to God you were joking. But if not, there's a little something to get you started down a new path of exploration, if you wish.

I was a little bit. I suspect that the DEA is actually looking for someone to translate slang. Is AAVE so opaque that an interpreter is needed? I don't think so. I hardly think that DEA agents are reviewing tapes and not understanding ANY of the conversation. I'm assuming that they're hung up on slang, hence my comment.

I do realize that there is a very real linguistic quality to AAVE. But for the purposes of understanding survielance tapes, is it necessary to have an expert in this linguistic off-shoot?

My other point was that there are other dialects that might be just as confusing to someone who isn't familiar with the local lingo. What about Spanglish? That's a patoise of English and Spanish; is it its own language yet?

Also, where does someone get a degree/certification in Ebonics or AAVE Linguistics? How exactly is that determined?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:24 AM on August 24, 2010


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".
That seems a little unfair given that dozens of other languages/dialects are listed as well.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:48 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ruthless Bunny, to answer your last question, I suspect hiring committees would review the work done by the applicant similarly to how academic positions are filled. That is, the applicant would suggest a professional and academic focus on specifics the committee is interested in.

As for how such expertise might be used, I further suspect that many DEA agents often know fully well what is going on during surveillance of conversations between suspects, but they have identified specific challenges verifying these interpretations and assumptions under some circumstances.

IANAL, but a fair amount of casework involves agents testifying that they understood some conversation to mean some specific thing in order to get warrants &etc.

Also, agents may not want to have to ask recalcitrant informants "what does that mean?" or "do you mean he has a gun and 40 kilos on the premises?" during interviews, and want to be able to be sure they understand what they think they understand.

Law enforcement can be a lot of groundwork and policywork, and having a specific linguistic consultant available in some circumstances is a valuable tool in those contexts.
posted by clvrmnky at 11:00 AM on August 24, 2010


Exactly what language hat said, because, for example, "boy" and "girl" have different connotations (like a black person being called one of those, for example) to those who don't know what they mean in drugspeak...
posted by Pax at 11:14 AM on August 24, 2010


All of which begs the question of whether we need the DEA in the first place...
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:25 AM on August 24, 2010


First Cat: Hey there, Poppa Mezz, is you anywhere?
Mezz: Man I'm down with it, stickin' like a honky.
First Cat: Lay a trey on me, ole man.
Mezz: Got to do it, slot mouth. (Pointing to a man standing in front of Big John's gin mill.) Gun the snatcher on your left raise - the head mixer laid on a bundle his ways, he's posin' back like crime sure pays.
First Cat: Father grab him! I ain't payin' him no rabbit. Jim, this jive you've got is a gasser, I'm going up to my dommy and dig that new mess Pops laid down. I hear he riffed back on 'Zackly. Pick you up at the Track when the kitchen mechanics romp.
Second Cat: Hey Mezzie lay some of that hard-cuttin' mess on me. I'm short a deuce of blips, but I'll straighten you later.
Mezz: Righteous, gizz, you're a poor boy but a good boy. Now don't come up crummy.
Second Cat: Never crummy, chummy. I'm gonna lay a drape under the trey of knockers for Tenth Street and I'll be on the scene wearing the green.
Third Cat: (Coming up with his chick.) Baby this is that powerful man with that good grass that'll make you trip through the highways and byways like a Maltese kitten. Mezz, this is my new dinner and she's a solid viper.
Girl: All the chicks is always talking 'bout you and Pops. Sure it ain't somethin' freakish goin' down 'tween you two? You sure got the ups on us pigeons, we been on a frantic kick tryin' to divide who's who. But everybody loves Pops and we know how your bloodstream's runnin'.
Fourth Cat: (Coming up with a stranger.) Mezz, this here is Sonny Thompson, he's one of the regular guys on the Avenue and can lay some iron too. Sonny's hip from way back and solid can blow some guage, so lay an ace on us and let us get gay. He been knowin' Pops for years.
Mezz: Solid man, any stud that's all right with Pops must really be in there. Here, pick up Sonny, the climb's on me.
Sonny: (To his friend.) Man, you know one thing? This cat should have been born J.B., he collars all jive and comes on like a spaginzy. (Turning to Mezz.) Boy, is you sure it ain't some of us in your family way down the line? Boy, you're too much, stay with it, you got to git it.
Fifth Cat: Hey Poppa Mezz! Stickin?
Mezz: Like the chinaberry trees in Aunt Hagar's back yard.
Fifth Cat: Lay an ace on me so's I can elevate myself and I'll pick you up on the late watch.
Sixth Cat: (Seeing Mezz hand over the reefers to Cat No. 5.) Ow, I know I'm gonna get straight now, I know you gonna put me on.
Fifth Cat: Back up boy, forty-five feet. Always lookin; for a freebie, Jim, why don't you let up sometime? Hawk's out here with his axe, and me with this lead sheet on, trying' to scuffle up those two's and fews for uncle so's I can bail out my full orchestration.
Sixth Cat: Aw, come and bust your vest, what you goin' to make out of sportin' life? You know you took the last chorus with me.
Fifth Cat: Looks like he got me, Mezz, but this cat wouldn't feed grass to a horse in a concrete pasture. He's so tight he wouldn't buy a pair of shorts for a flea. Man, just look at him, dig that vine all offtime, and his strollers look like he's ready to jump. This cat's playin ketch-up and I got to tighten his wig. Hold it down, Jim (speaking now to Mezz) and I'll come up with a line or two like I said. Come on Jack, let's final to my main stash.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 11:45 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dealers don't just sound like rappers, but actually structure a variation of language and sophisticated codes that nearly anyone would have trouble translating. Rather than hiring an ebonics expert to understand the lingo of drug dealers, they'd be better off hiring a former drug dealer.

Or a social worker who spends the better part of most of his days sitting in rooms full of young drug dealers who are having candid, unedited conversations about their lives. Seriously, DEA, I can HOOK YOU UP, but I won't, because you are dicks.
posted by The Straightener at 11:49 AM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Seriously, DEA, I can HOOK YOU UP, but I won't, because you are dicks.

Your just pissed because of all those years they were camped, sniper-style, in windows across from your apartment, ready to bust in. Good thing you had blankets with aluminum foil nailed to your windows.
posted by Pax at 12:30 PM on August 24, 2010


That was the CIA and my assignment was HIGHLY CLASSIFIED.
posted by The Straightener at 12:55 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


griphus: "I had all the phrasing and vocabulary down but I could never, ever get the right cadence"

That's pretty much where I am with MLE (the British equivalent to AAVE). My understanding of it is pretty impressive for somebody of my race and background. My rare attempts to actually speak it? Unintentionally entertaining is probably the kindest way of describing them.
posted by the latin mouse at 1:21 PM on August 24, 2010


>had been "hit by a train" which is to say, she had been gang-raped.

?!?!?!?! Holy hell.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:46 PM on August 24, 2010


William Labov for the win.
posted by readyfreddy at 5:00 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bunny, if it were just slang, then all they would need is a dictionary. There's much more involved in this dialect than "slang" as you call it (which might be considered pejorative to some people… myself included).
posted by readyfreddy at 5:04 PM on August 24, 2010


had been "hit by a train" which is to say, she had been gang-raped.

The consensual (?) variation is "pulling a train". This is not, however, limited to the ghetto -- I heard it growing up in a 99% white city. And to be perfectly honest, I have a relative whose birth is attributed to the same activity.

Given the limited context of this anecdote, I'm unable to determine if the woman was joking.

I'm assuming that they're hung up on slang

Here's the thing, Ruthless Bunny. It is not slang. Or, as you seem to believe, "just" slang. There's much more to it than some fad word choices.
posted by dhartung at 9:52 PM on August 24, 2010


Yeah, AAVE/BVE is not slang - it has structure, vocabulary, etc. Just like ASL isn't spoken English translated into signs. But again, not everyone who is fluent in AAVE would be able to decode a drug deal.
posted by Pax at 6:19 AM on August 25, 2010


So where exactly do you get a degree in the Ebonics language? I watched a few Jay-Z videos and Spike Lee movies. Would that qualify me to be an expert?
posted by JJ86 at 9:18 AM on August 25, 2010


I'm assuming that they're hung up on slang

Here's the thing, Ruthless Bunny. It is not slang.


I'm guessing, but I think the point is that AAVE is not the problem, as just about any of us can parse the grammar and the pronunciation, but it's the drug-trade-specific slang that's hanging them up, and merely a knowledge of AAVE is not going to get them what they want.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:32 AM on August 25, 2010


I'm assuming that they're hung up on slang

Here's the thing, Ruthless Bunny. It is not slang. Or, as you seem to believe, "just" slang. There's much more to it than some fad word choices.


You've missed my point. I'll restate. I don't think that the DEA needs a full on AAVE linguist to translate the dialect for them, I think they need to understand specific slang. I'm questioning the specific need, not the fact that AAVE is a separate dialect.

Also, I pointed to the specific racist nature of the posting. We need someone who speaks "Ebonics" but I saw no request for a "Spanglish" speaker or for someone familiar with the linguistic specifics of Meth manufacturers and dealers in North Georgia.

Any enterprise, criminal or otherwise, is going to have a lingo, full of acronyms and buzzwords. I'm not sure that a specific linguist is needed.

One just can't tell from the posting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:34 AM on August 25, 2010


Ruthless Bunny: IYou've missed my point. I'll restate. I don't think that the DEA needs a full on AAVE linguist to translate the dialect for them, I think they need to understand specific slang. I'm questioning the specific need, not the fact that AAVE is a separate dialect.

Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar has a post about this. Here's an excerpt:
The story was pretty interesting; in short, the Drug Enforcement Agency sees a potential need for translators from AAVE [African American Vernacular English/Ebonics] to Standard American English (SAE) for its investigations. Now, you might say that AAVE is merely a dialect of English, and that therefore any native speaker of English will do, but it’s not so easy. Michael Sanders, an agent at the DEA, said it nicely:
“Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.

‘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,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.’”‘”
More importantly, the syntax of AAVE and SAE are different in meaningful ways. For instance, AAVE has a complicated tense system (I’m getting this info from Ficket 1972). Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:
(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.
The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future. I’m not aware of any such structure to the tenses in SAE, and prior to reading the Ficket article, I was completely unaware of them in AAVE as well. This is why it’s important to have AAVE experts looking over the data, as AAVE neophytes will not be able to pick out this additional information. In fact, the differences between SAE and AAVE are pretty substantial.
The full post is pretty interesting, and so is the Wikipedia article on African American Vernacular English that Doyle linked to.
posted by Kattullus at 10:42 AM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


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