The federal Drug Enforcment Administration translators would work out of the Atlanta field office according to a Justice Department request, posted online today by The Smoking Gun.
The request is again drawing attention to the form of speech that was hotly debated in the ’90s after a California school district passed a resolution recognizing the legitimacy of what is now more commonly referred to as “African-American English.”
Ebonics detractors often characterize the speech as poor grammar or lazy English, but linguists say it has an important place in history.
John Braugh, a leading expert on African-American English, and chairman of the Linguistic Society of America’s public relations committee, said having trained translators on staff with the DEA could provide an invaluable service.
Such experts, he said, would likely be used — as with many federal linguists — to assist with wiretaps and linguistic profiling, when a person’s accent or dialect can help lead investigators to the criminal.
“They probably want reliable expertise to make sure they’ve got an accurate interpretation for what is said,” he said.”Because there’s the perception in many minds that you don’t need a translator, people believe they’ve understood something when they haven’t.”
Though Baugh applauded the Justice Department for recognizing the relevance of Ebonics in society, he questioned whether it may be unwittingly throwing itself back into a political debate by using the term “Ebonics.”
The word still carries a negative connotation more than a decade after the Oakland, Calif., school board ignited a national firestorm of debate when it proposed teaching some students in Ebonics. Political figures and pundits from then Education Secretary William Bennett to the Rev. Jesse Jackson blasted the decision at the time. The debate later became fodder for late night comedians.
But 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 educaton 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.”
DEA spokesman Mike Sanders said the request for the translators was made by the Atlanta field office.
“It has nothing to do with racial issues,” Sanders said. “It is a type of language recognized by different linguist services as a type of language.”
The DEA’s Atlanta field office did not return calls seeking comment on the jobs.
According to the proposal, the Atlanta field office is also looking for 144 Spanish linguists, 12 Vietnamese, and nine each for Korean and Farsi.
The Linguistic Society of America has shied away from taking an official stance on whether Ebonics is a legitimate language, but has said the fact that it’s spoken with such frequency means it cannot be ignored.
“Characterizations of Ebonics as ‘slang,’ ‘mutant,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘defective,’ ‘ungrammatical,’ or ‘broken English’ are incorrect and demeaning,” the LSA wrote in its 1997 resolution on Ebonics.