The Justice Department is looking for “ebonics” speakers to translate for the DEA

The Justice Department is looking for nine linguists with a knowledge of American street slang to “monitor, translate and transcribe” DEA recordings of drug dealers. These recordings will include “telephonic monitoring of court ordered nonconsensual intercepts, consensual listening devices, and other media,” which means wiretaps, we think. Applicants with a knowledge of the ATL scene will have a leg up; the investigations will be run out the DEA’s Atlanta office.

The move is part of a DEA request for more than two thousand linguists to fill translation duties. Spanish is the highest-priority, but Ebonics is one of more than 100 other languages the agency needs help translating.

Ebonics is the popular term for what academics call African-American vernacular English. As linguist John Rickford explains, Ebonics is not just slang:

“Ebonics includes non-slang words like ashy (referring to the appearance of dry skin, especially in winter) which have been around for a while, and are used by people of all age groups. Ebonics also includes distinctive patterns of pronunciation and grammar, the elements of language on which linguists tend to concentrate because they are more systematic and deep-rooted.”

Rickford also quotes Toni Morrison’s words of appreciation for Ebonics and its “five present tenses”: “The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language.”

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