Dem Federalli Be Lookin’ Fo Snitches: Ebonics, Black Vernacular and The Justice Department

August 25, 2010  |  

by Charing Ball

Well for those worried about finding a job in the recession, I got a hot lead for you:  The Justice Department is looking for translators.

Don’t speak a foreign language, you say? No worries, this job requires no travel overseas and no expensive college courses in French, Mandarin or Spanish.  All you need is a familiarity with the hood, a penchant for street lingo and you probably should own a couple of Snoop Dogg and E-40 albums. Just drop off your applications at the Justice Department. That’s right, the department is looking to hire translators fluent in ‘Ebonics’ to help monitor, transcribe and translate conversations recorded in drug investigations.

In an effort to fight homegrown terror, the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, is seeking a total of nine translators to assist the department’s Atlanta division in the “understanding of foreign languages used in conversations by speakers of languages other than English.”  In other words, Dem federalli be lookin’ fo snitches ’cause dey stay be plottin’ on er’rebody, tryna catch us riddin’ dirrty, yaameen?

If this wasn’t a true story, it would be funny. Oh hell, it is true and it’s still funny.  Good luck with the dat (that). But seriously (almost) it appears this job posting will mostly likely reignite the debate as to whether or not Ebonics is a real language or just ignorant spewing of those, who are too lazy to master the “correct” English.

Some modern black intellectuals have argued that Ebonics, also known as African-American English Vernacular, or AAEV, is a dialect that has been around since Blacks were enslaved. Being from different parts of Africa and unable to communicate between themselves, they began translating from the various African-based languages to English, Spanish, Portuguese, French etc.

Because certain sounds were foreign to many of the African-based languages, a natural distortion of English occurred. And because of the out-right prohibition of literacy among Blacks, this dialect was passed on from generation to generation. “Dat’s” and “Dese”, the verb “be” in place of “is” and “are” as well as dropping the “g” off of words (and my personal favorite, “ain’t”) are examples of this African-American Vernacular.

The term Ebonics, which is derived from Ebony Phonics, had been coined as early as the 1970s, however, it didn’t come back into play until 1996, when the Oakland School Board proposed the recognition of Ebonics as African American English and proposed its use to teach Standard English in the Oakland Schools. Of course, this created a firestorm of controversy within the African-American community, who challenged the logic of standardizing “bad” English.

If language are the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, than there should be no question that AAEV qualifies as a language, or at the very least a dialect of American English, as it has its own grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

There have always been many varieties of spoken English speak, from the Creole tongue of the Cajun Country to the Scot-Irish drawl of the Appalachian Mountains to the many English dialects from across the pond. And since English itself is a bastard language, created from Old Norse, French, German, Greek, Celtic and a host of around 60 other tongues, if a historical figures, such as Shakespeare, would pull a back to the future, he probably wouldn’t have a friggin’ clue what any of us would “be” saying.

As far as the Justice Departments needing Ebonics translators, it appears that they are barking up the wrong linguistics tree. What the Justice Department needs is a person, whom can translate street slang – although I imagine that the position might lend itself to high turnover, considering that slang is often times regional and changes as rapidly as it has been created.  Not to mention that those who are well versed in street slang are not likely to go work for the Justice Department, ya’ feel me?

Perhaps the Justice Department would be better served putting their energies into actual undercover work because what we need deciphered is the legal jargon that has made it possible for corporate thuggin’ to run rampant.

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