Justice Dept. hiring "Ebonics experts" for drug enforcement spying operations

The US Department of Justice is looking to hire (and I quote), Ebonics experts, to help monitor, translate, and transcribe the secretly recorded conversations of persons who are the subject of narcotics investigations. The Smoking Gun has details, and scans of the original documents (a detail is shown above).

Understandably, there is much outrage over the use of the word "Ebonics" in the ad. The term became a flashpoint for racially-charged ridicule a little over a decade ago: the Oakland, CA, school board caused national uproar when it proposed teaching some students in Ebonics.

Here's an interesting quote from Linguistic Society of America member John Braugh, from an ABC News article. He believes the choice to use the word "Ebonics" may have been ill-advised, but that African-American English has an important place in American cultural history:

While African-American English may seem like a uneducated form of traditional English to some, Baugh said it has roots in the slave trade, when Africans with no access to education were forced to find a shared language. Slave-traders, he explained, would often separate groups of slaves who spoke the same dialect, leaving the men and women with no way to verbally communicate. So they learned a rough version of standard English together, without the help of formal education or literacy skills.

"To say that it's a bastardization is cruel," he said. "The reality is that the linguistic consequences of slavery are greatly misunderstood."

[via BB Submitterator, thanks Inconsequentiallogic]


    1. ur a genius! haha- i had to sign up and get an account just to tell you that- made me LOL….literally :)

  1. I guess I don’t exactly understand where the outrage at this job posting may be coming from. Is Ebonics a bad word now? What about African American Vernacular?

    They both mean the same thing – the distinct dialect (complete with its own grammar) spoken by some African Americans.

    The only outrage I’ve ever understood around this stuff is when people misunderstood what was going on in Oakland and thought the school was trying to teach Ebonics, rather than leveraging it to teach standard English.

  2. Back in the ’70s, it was commonly taught that Black Vernacular English (BVE) was an inferior or incomplete language that didn’t allow speakers to formulate or express complex thoughts. The linguist William Labov demonstrated that BVE actually had its own rich and consistent syntax, and was fully as efficient and expressive as standard English. As for the supposed crippling effects of BVE on the intellect, one of Labov’s more amusing examples contrasts two speakers discussing the existence of God. One, a college-educated middle-class standard English speaker, rambles on at length and totally fails to articulate a coherent argument; the other, a teenage BVE speaker states his views in a few short, clear sentences, laying out his axioms and then deriving a conclusion with a precision that would delight any logician.

    1. Cherry-picked examples don’t say much. I’m sure you can make concise and rambling arguments just as easily in any dialect.

      The limits to vernacular usually aren’t syntax, they’re lack of terminology. This is easily solved by importing words, but the way Ebonics has been handled, I worry about it any formal treatment going all Academie Francaise and rejecting words that aren’t “vernacular” enough.

  3. If you want a good article about the whole ebonics brouhaha from the perspective of a linguist, the best I’ve seen is this one from the Nature magazine from March 27, 1997 by Geoffrey Pullman of UC Santa Cruz. It’s a nice fact-based article which describes the manner in which African American English is a separate dialect with its own grammatical rules and not just “broken” North American English.

  4. meanwhile, no one is objecting that right below Ebonics, they’re looking for someone who speaks English, but only one such person.

    1. Mic, those numbers don’t signify the amount of speakers they are looking for; according to the document scanned, the languages with “1” next to them are “common”, while the ones with “2” next to them are “exotic” (whatever that means).

      1. @rhamantus and Anon #49: My guess (and this is only a guess) is that “common” means that there are lots of speakers of these languages living in the U.S., while “exotic” means that there aren’t many speakers of these languages living in the U.S.

        On a completely different note (and addressed to no one in particular): It’s apparent from some of the comments in this thread that lots of people don’t really understand what languages and dialects are, and how they work. Might I recommend a wonderful introductory-level text on the subject: David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language (2010) (available here). This book is written with younger readers in mind; but is suitable for readers of just about any age and educational background. It is very easy to understand, and yet is not in any way “dumbed down”. It provides an excellent overview of what languages and dialects are, how they work, etc. — essentially covering the basics of linguistics without getting bogged down in unnecessary levels of detail that only professional linguists care about. I would highly recommend this book to everyone. In fact, I would argue that this book ought to be on every student’s required reading list.

  5. I like language. It’s such a primordial example of our innate humanness. Even when treated like animals, humans will find a way to be human, and to talk to each other. Those who think of it as “broken English” are showcasing their broad ignorance (unless, I guess, you’re willing to entertain the idea that English is just “broken German”).

  6. So they’re hiring someone who intuitively understands BVE/Ebonics/AASD or whatever you want to call it. Great–except there’s no “it” for practical purposes. There are just lots of subdialects, some of them pretty damn mutually unintelligible. If they hire an Angeleno to transcribe what black drug dealers in Queens are saying, they’re not necessarily going to get their money’s worth.

    (And, of course, that’s true ten times over for “English–Worldwide,” the next item on the list.)

    1. That Angelino is going to do a damn slight bit better than I would – I’ve never even seen someone speak any dialect of African-American English in person.

      The same thing goes for any dialect of any language – You do a heck of a lot better if you speak SOME version of the root language natively, and if you’re familiar with a related dialect, it gives you one hell of a leg up.

      Don’t confuse current slang and accent for dialect – The Angelino and the Queens native probably have different slang from each other (and from their parents), regional variations in vocabulary (shared with their parents, but different across the continent), and different accents, but the basic grammatical rules are going to be a lot closer related to each other than they are to my spoken Canadian English (heavily accented for my native Ottawa Valley, and augmented with a confusing smattering of Australian English vocabulary from my mother’s family, also Ottawa Valley accented).

  7. Once you come to understand how language works, it becomes bleedin’ obvious that BVE is as “real” a language as any other dialect of any other language.

    The problem is the public misunderstanding of english enshrines Standard dialects as “real language” and everything else as “wrong” or “corrupt”. This POV is depressingly prevalent because it’s still perpetuated by the grammar prescriptivism instilled in our education system. it gets no respect. English orthography is tailored to the artificial Standard English dialect we learn in school. Kind of a self-perpetuating loop- teach the arbitrary rules, punish those who don’t learn the arbitrary rules, the next generation believes the arbitrary rules are a true metric of intelligence or worth. And those who’s home dialects are further from Standard English are going to have a harder time learning the arbitrary rules.

    In short, dictionaries are racist.

    1. In short, dictionaries are racist.

      You know, just because vernacular isn’t inherently inferior to standard English, doesn’t mean there isn’t a value to keeping a standard around. It’s useful as a common ground for communicating with people who use a different vernacular.

      In the same way, Spanish, French, and Italian are all excellent languages. But for a long time it still made sense to prefer standard Latin for documents intended to be read in all of those countries, for reasons beyond simple elitism.

  8. Please – there aren’t any dialects of American English that are mutually unintelligible. Now, it’s possible that if you paired a 90 year-old black man from the Louisiana Bayou with a 90 year-old Scottish woman from Aberdeen up and had them communicate, there might be some difficulty in understanding.

    The idea that the varieties of BVE are something that your average American can’t parse is kind of laughable, though. BVE has never been as slang-heavy as Cockney.

  9. The last living slave to die was in 1979 (and I’m not sure how accurate that is since he claimed to be 137 years old and the oldest verified person died at 122). So anyone speaking in that dialect/slang/whatever is at minimum second generation, more likely third or fourth or more.

    My grandparents were full blooded Danes, and I don’t speak or understand a word of Danish, or talk with a Danish accent. I’ve had the same access to formal education that most modern people have. If someone graduates from high school and still thinks “I be goin’…” is appropriate grammar, well, the school failed them or they refused to learn.

    I understand relaxing your grammatical precision and using slang and bad grammar when hanging out with friends, but when a 20 or 30 year old seems to be incapable of speaking like he’s had any education at all… well, blaming that on what happened almost 150 years ago to his great grandparents is a little strained.

    And Angusm, you could be perfectly correct, but that really puts me in mind of people who chose Bush over Kerry because Kerry’s debating style was more nuanced and Bush was “the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with”.

    1. But did you live in an area that was predominantly Danish? Where most of the people around you spoke Danish? Where perhaps there were societal pressure that frequently forced you to stay around other Danes, where your Dane-ness could really percolate and flourish despite the oppression? Where, like Darwin’s island birds, groups of Danes would establish their own Danish bits and rules, and so on, and I’m tired of this metaphor.

      But does that make sense? It isn’t “slang and bad grammar,” to a certain extent, when everyone around you speaks and understands it perfectly. And it’s not so far from English that “Black Vernacular English” (a new term to me) speakers can’t just effortlessly go back to it whenever it’s necessary.

      That said, I can sort of understand why they’re trying to find people who know the lingo. I’ve seen The Wire, and when you’re trying to digest both the patois and the drug code, it can get a little dicey.

    2. Ok, well, I’m just going to ignore the various layers of privilege and implied racism going on in your comment, because I’m sure other commenters will deal with that.

      Basically, though, you should read D.F. Wallace’s “On Authority And American Usage” (link! http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html). He does a very good job laying out the difference between a dialect and plain old “bad English”.

      It should be noted, too, that if you relax your grammar and use slang in a systematic way “with your friends”, you’re using a dialect. In fact, you probably use multiple dialects. If you live in the South, you probably speak differently with a neighbor than you do on the telephone with a Yankee customer service rep. You’re not just toning down your accent, you’re using entirely different words and sentence structures.

      I’m a Yankee; I could not simply go down to Tennessee, use bad grammar and a fake accent, and be mistaken for a local–because it’s an entirely different dialect, not simply bad grammar. Nor could I call up a native speaker of “Ebonics” and convince him that I was, too.

      Standard American English is, for better or worse, the standard. So it’s no wonder that, regardless of what particular dialect they speak, people who can’t communicate in SAE are taken less seriously. But dismissing those dialects as just bad corruptions of the Good English that you speak is simply ignorant.

  10. Umm… I would be careful with defining Ebonics as a separate language and not just a dialect of English. An employer is not legally able to discriminate against a person because of their race, religion, sex, etc… but if an employer is looking for an English speaker and a potential hire shows up speaking (for example) Spanish – or has what the employer deems limited knowledge of the English language, there is no way the applicant will be considered for the job.

    Couldn’t the same apply to Ebonics (or BVE or AAE whatever you want to call it) if it was defined as a separate language? This is especially dangerous if students are taught in this ‘alternate language’ in school… it’s basically setting them up for failure.

  11. English is not my mother tongue and I’m not American, so I’m puzzled about why the term “Ebonics” is considered offensive. It seems that in English, and America in particular, any word describing something specific to the black community is considered offensive (sorry “African-American community” — does that apply also to people who’ve never been to America nor to Africa?). This applies even if, to my eyes, the word describes something in a non-derogatory way (like in this case). Why is that?

    I can see why the N-word could be considered insulting, but is there really a negative connotation with “Ebonics”? “African-American English” is quite a mouthful.

    I’m not trying to troll here, I’m sincerely curious about this facet of American culture.

  12. The linguist should be John Baugh, not “Braugh”.

    As a grad student (in linguistics) one summer I worked as a consultant for the defense in a drug trafficking related case, so this isn’t that far fetched. The defense hoped to argue that wire-tapped phone recordings were not, as the prosecution argued, coded conversations for drugs but rather “Ebonics Slang”, as the defense wanted to define it. I won’t get into the politics of whether Ebonics is a good or bad term to describe a language variety spoken by many African-Americans in the US – AAVE (african american vernacular english), BEV (black english vernacular), AAL (african-american lanaguage) & Ebonics have all been used. Each carries a subtle ideological connotation. John Baugh has written extensively on this.

    I wasn’t willing to support the defense’s argument that the language was misinterpreted Ebonics slang, or contradict the veteran NARC’s analysis. The conversations did incorporate some AAVE/Ebonics practices, but also used other language that lacked appropriate context, i.e., why were ‘tires’ being talked about, if the rest of the conversation had nothing to do with cars & car parts? The defendants ended up taking plea deals.

  13. Damn straight it’s a dialect capable of complexity. Why, Clay Davis can wring about 800 meanings out of the word “Sheeeeeeeeeiittt” alone.

    Still waiting on my Clay Davis ringtone, btw. Get on that, internet!

  14. African-American dialect, like Yiddish, is not only a separate dialect, but a dialect specifically used to exclude and confuse speakers of mainstream dialect. This is why its harder to understand than just simple regional variations. Pronunciation of words have been changed with some degree of deliberateness. Ax for ask. It is not just “different,” it is subversive!

  15. It isn’t “slang and bad grammar,” to a certain extent, when everyone around you speaks and understands it perfectly.

    It isn’t bad grammar, but isn’t local vocabulary is what slang means?

  16. This is hilarious, not that the Justice Department is seeking an Ebonics speaker but that some readers of Boing Boing don’t understand the evolution of African American/Black/Negro slang. While it is rooted in slaves developing a way to communicate it does not rely on Narual’s assumption of generational removal from an original language. Ebonics is purely rooted in English. Yes, some people speak it in informal settings, some speak it because of a refusal to learn, many speak it because the education system has failed them. there has been for year a emphasis in the education system on standardized test which rely more on memorization, mathmatics (drug dealers have amazing math skills) and logical assumptions and require very little language skills. Thus first generations Americans even today out score with limited English language skills their native English speaking counterparts (purely anecdotal statement from my experience in the US school system).

    That being said the Justice Department is going to be shocked when they find out that Ebonics differs from city to city. Chicago, New York, New Orleans, L.A., and Atlanta have developed local forms of Ebonics that would be foreign to each other. for example: G-nikes, uptowns, up’s, icy whites, forces, and fatheads all refer to a pair of white Nike Air Force Ones (http://amzn.to/9H1Cmp). It wouldn’t take long for someone who speaks Ebonics from one city to pick up on the nuances of another but there will be things one won’t ultimately understand. The list of names for the different kinds of marijuana would be ridiculous. I think I need a cup of tea!

  17. Standard American English is, for better or worse, the standard.

    I would think it’s mostly for better: it’s similar enough to a wide variety of literature to make it radily accessible. Most regional dialects that have their own grammar haven’t yet built up so much material.

  18. Here’s my theory: The schools teach the standard dialect of the language (e.g. schools in the U.S. teach Standard American English). Therefore, non-standard dialects tend to sound “uneducated” to those who have been educated in the standard dialect.

    However, few people consistently speak the standard dialect of a language, even if they are well educated: Most routinely speak the vernacular dialect that they grew up speaking, and that their family and friends continue to speak. (You may learn the formal rules of a language in the classroom; but you learn how the language is actually spoken outside of the classroom — in the home and in the community.) Even though people have been educated in the standard dialect, the vernacular dialect feels more natural to them; and they would feel a bit silly speaking the standard dialect, with its stuffy formality, around friends and family.

    This doesn’t mean that they are uneducated — most people are quite capable of speaking the standard dialect whenever they wish — it simply means that they are more comfortable speaking the vernacular dialect of their community: the dialect they have been speaking ever since they first learned to speak as small children, before they ever set foot in a classroom.

    Each of us is so familiar with our own vernacular dialect that we don’t really think about how much it violates the formal rules of the standard dialect. It just sounds “normal” to us. We would never regard our own vernacular dialect as “uneducated”.

    But when we hear a different vernacular dialect — one that is not spoken in our own family or community — we notice how much it violates the rules of grammar, usage, and pronunciation we learned in school. Therefore, it sounds “uneducated” to us. We suspect that the people who speak it never really learned the rules of the language in school. Of course, they learned those rules every bit as much as we did; and we violate those rules every bit as much as they do. But we don’t think about how much we routinely break the formal rules of grammar, usage, and pronunciation when we speak with our friends and family. Yet we do notice it when speakers of other vernacular dialects break these rules.

    Combine this with the fact that some vernacular dialects have traditionally been associated with particular classes, regions, races, and/or ethnicities that have been looked down upon by certain members of society, and you can easily see why those dialects are viewed as a mark of backwardness, ignorance, or inferiority. This is not only true of African-American Vernacular English (a/k/a “Black English” or “Ebonics”), but is also true of the Cockney dialect of east London, some of the dialects of New York City, some of the dialects of the American South (especially the “hillbilly” dialect of the Appalachians), etc.

  19. The last thing we need is more languages. Language barriers just help to divide people; we should stamp out as many as possible. They can be preserved by historians and linguists.

    And before some snarky person says it, no I don’t care if it isn’t English, though that does seem to be the clear frontrunner at the moment and no Mandarin isn’t close.

    Learning the same language won’t automatically wipe out your culture either. I mean, are Texans and Californians and Australians the same? How about Parisians and Quebecois and Ivory Coastians? (Ivory Coasters? Ivorians?)

    1. Learning the same language won’t automatically wipe out your culture either.

      Unless, of course, most of your cultural heritage is written down in some language you can’t read. Then it probably will.

    2. I don’t know if I agree with your analysis of various languages’ chances of becoming Interlac. Spanish is the most common second language although Mandarin and it probably swap the top spot. Remember that Mandarin is a ‘Federal’ language that isn’t the first spoken language of most Chinese. English is used as much as it is because its speakers account for the biggest chunk of the money in the world. That’s slipping fast though: at one point they probably accounted for most of the money in the world period.
      I’m writing only of spoken language though. At a wild guess I’d say that written Chinese, which is almost the same regardless of what kind of Chinese you speak, would get top spot.

  20. Whether or not Ebonics is an offensive word depends on where you get off the bus. The Toronto has a “African-Canadian” school (which I think is just simple Segregation but let’s not get into that now) and Ebonics was proposed for the curriculum without any debate as to the appropriateness of the term.
    A sister of a friend of mine is one of the top language people in the world. She finances the projects that she’s really interested in (for example a phonetic alphabet covering all the sounds a human head can make) by getting ferried around the world to provide an expert opinion on highly politically charged debates about how to classify some group’s speech: language? dialect? pidgin? slang? or (Laird hawlp us) brogue?
    Jive is probably a pidgin or “trade language”: something built by people who don’t have a language in common so they build something based on a language that’s around but that none of them are fluent in. Usually done by previously isolated island populations using the language of whatever naval empire it is that’s put them in contact.
    Nothing wrong with that. Pidgins might not have all of the complicated do-dads or history that a naturally occurring language has but it’s just as good for everyday use and, anyway, constructing a pidgin that’s good enough to last more than a generation is awesome.
    As to the whole slavery thing that’s crept into the thread: I’m the descendant of one of the White slaves of local aboriginal chief Joseph Brant. Millions more Europeans are ancestors of slaves of the Moors. So what? It’s not what happened to some ancestor of yours hundreds of years ago that matters. It’s the racism that’s here now and what you do about it that’s important.

    1. @Nadreck

      I’m curious to know more about this “phonetic alphabet covering all the sounds a human head can make” and whether you’re talking about statistical modelling or just a brainstorming project. I assume the former?

      I look forward to the day there are no ‘languages’, just ‘words’.

      1. I look forward to the day there are no ‘languages’, just ‘words’.

        meaningless grammar words without are

  21. The register of English that one speaks sends, fairly or unfairly, automatic signals about one’s level of education and cognitive ability. My ‘native’ register is a mix of Upper/Appalachian South and Deep South English, though considerably moderated (most of the time) by my years in a university setting and the influence of non-Southern dialects (I spent part of my childhood in a Southern town that happened to be a popular retirement settlement for Midwesterners). I can switch between my ‘native’ register and my ‘academic’ register with ease, and usually do so unconsciously. I learned long ago that people- even fellow Southerners- will not take you as seriously about certain things if you employ a distinctive Southern register (with the exception of, say, certain ‘genteel’ dialects which are spoken by only a minority of Southern whites). While part of me bristles at this ‘disguising’ of my origins and native dialect, the other, more practical part of me recognizes that it’s a necessary trait, or at least one that helps me considerably. If I want, I can obscure my Southern identity when I encounter non-Southerners. This is useful, since many non-Southerners automatically think ‘uneducated, racist, fundamentalist’ when they hear our dialect- even if the non-Southerner knows in fact that those things do not universally apply.

    That said: I am proud of my dialect, and I personally find it soothing and pleasant to listen to. To be honest, I find many Northern white dialects grating and harsh, and more evident ones signal various unpleasant characteristics- again, despite my rational knowledge that language/dialect/register do not in fact universally signal certain characteristics. I would like for it to be otherwise- that the negative stereotypes that attach to the whole range of ‘non-standard’ English could be erased, and that ‘non-standard’ forms could be equally viable as vehicles for intellectual discourse. But that’s just not the world we live in. And the existence and normalization of standard English has very real and practical usages- it is mutually intelligible across the planet. When I go abroad I drop my native register entirely, unless I encounter fellow Southerners. Non-American speakers of English, I’ve found, can usually follow a Southern dialect with difficulty, even barring unusual vocabulary or syntax. Carefully enunciated standard English is the way to go. So arguably the existence and valorization of standard English need not be a ‘racist’ or ‘elitist’ thing, but a way of ensuring mutual communication across registers and places.

  22. “Ebonics” is just an extremely vague, rapidly changing, non-regional dialect which is spoken by some unknown percentage of African-Americans as well as by some unknown percentage of other ethnic groups (i.e. Juggalos). Dialects obviously didn’t start with slavery, nor are they exclusive to African-Americans. In fact, many of the slang terms used in “ebonics” have origins from other ethnic groups. For example, “Jazz” and “poker,” “sucker” and “scam” all derive from Irish.


    Now the melting pot of slang stretches so far that we have suburban American kids calling things “dillarang”. It’s global slang. A global game of “telephone”. No one owns it and the origins become largely irrelevant as the slang mutates.

    My favorite part of this controversy is from the SFGATE article,

    “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.'”

    Are they really so stupid as to not know what ‘ballin’ is?

    And if the Queen of England is also ‘pinching pennies’ is it still “ebonics”?


  23. All this discussion and nobody mentions the “Undercover Brother” parallels? Somewhere Eddie Griffin is crying tonight.

  24. The “1” in the screenshot above denotes that “Ebonics” is considered to be widely-spoken. The DEA’s Atlanta field office is actually looking for nine Ebonics speakers.

    In other words… Nobody at the DEA’s Atlanta office can understand what people in Atlanta are saying. This speaks to a far larger problem than whether nor Ebonics/African-American English is slang/dialect/whatever.

    A less charitable reading would be, “DEA’s Atlanta staff is having trouble understanding English”.

  25. Ohh yeah I seem to remember learning in history class that the words Donks, Scrapa, Spinnaz, Slap, Grillz, Badonkadonk, Baby mamma, dawg, crippin and skrillz all had their roots in slavery. Ohh wait, no I didn’t learn that. Exactly which ebonic words come from slavery?

  26. The reality is that many speakers of African American Vernacular (i.e. Ebonics) are incomprehensible to the rest of the population. It is a de facto foreign language. And when you’re going to put someone on the stand and cross-examine them about what they said on tape, you have to be precise about the meanings of words.

    This is not really about live use of translators in court anyway, because almost every speaker of AAV can switch readily to more comprehensible English. This is about drug enforcement and wiretapping and understanding the meaning of what is being said.

    As someone who lives in Atlanta and practices law there, I see this every day and there is a real need for it. Sometimes the realities we confront aren’t as nice as we’d like them to be.

  27. That document is odd. Bahasa Indonesia is listed as an exotic language even though 200 million people speak it where as Albanian is common but has only 9 million speakers.

    Also misspelt the Brunei, not that they will be getting many drugs from there.

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