US Justice Department seeking expert wiretap translators in Ebonics


I’m not the hippest cat on the street, but this news certainly surprised me. Usually Ebonics is generally classified as a non-standard (or bastardized) form of the language rather than a bona fide dialect, the DEA is actively seeking Ebonics experts to help translate wiretaps and decipher bugged phonecalls. From the original article:

The DEA’s need for full-time linguists specializing in Ebonics is detailed in bid documents related to the agency’s mid-May issuance of a request for proposal (RFP) covering the provision of as many as 2100 linguists for the drug agency’s various field offices. Answers to the proposal were due from contractors on July 29.

In contract documents, which are excerpted here, Ebonics is listed among 114 languages for which prospective contractors must be able to provide linguists. The 114 languages are divided between “common languages” and “exotic languages.” Ebonics is listed as a “common language” spoken solely in the United States.

They are also seeking expert speakers of many other languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Farsi and Jamaican patois – but it is interesting to note that ebonics is among the listed languages.

Die hard linguists are reacting in a strange way, fighting against the DEA’s apparent ‘upgrading’ of Ebonics to a fully fledged dialect, but of course the DEA is not trying to classify this distinction – they are simply in need of translators!

In my limited experience of Ebonics, I’ve found that it varies greatly and seems to be mostly used as a catch-all term for African American non-standard English. Surely the DEA’s targets – that is to say, drug dealers – would be better understood by a former dealer, rather than someone who is simply well-versed in Ebonics?