DEA Looking for a Few Good Ebonics Speakers.

At NPR's news blog, Frank James snarks on the DEA's request for linguists who specialize in Ebonics:

Some stories make you doublecheck the date just to make sure it's not April Fools Day. Such is an Associated Press report that the Drug Enforcement Administration is seeking speakers of Ebonics who can do translation work for its agents in the Southeast.

It's really getting increasingly harder to tell the real from fake news, isn't it?

Clearly, James thinks this is absurd, but I don't see why; Ebonics is almost exclusively spoken by African Americans, and for DEA agents working in the Southeast United States, it's not a stretch to say that they will have some contact with at a least a few of those African Americans. Given the background of most agents -- middle-class and white -- there's a good chance that they aren't familiar with African American slang and vernacular. Hell, there's a good joke about this in Season 3 of The Wire, as Roland Pryzbylewski depends on Caroline Massey to translate the slang coming through on the Barksdale/Bell wiretap.

In real life, drug agents have actually misinterpreted conversations heard on wiretaps. TalkLeft's Jeralyn offers this example:

A case in which an agent maintained the word "lil' neakers" meant 9 ounces of cocaine. The word for 9 is nina, not neakers. Nina could mean 9 of anything, for example, "I've got my nina on deck" could mean "I have my 9mm gun with me." Or it could refer to $900.00. But nina and neakers, I was told, are two totally different words, with two totally different meanings. The agent was either guessing or he misheard the word.

As my roommate pointed out when we talked about this, the only problem with the DEA's request is that they asked for "speakers of Ebonics," when it's actually more important that agents understand Ebonics. After all, most "native" speakers of Ebonics speak and understand standard English. What's more, Ebonics is the common name for what is more accurately called "African American Vernacular English." Still, there's no reason for the DEA to take heat on this; it's really not hard to imagine that in the Southeast, there is a pressing need for linguists with skills in Ebonics.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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