DEA Seeks to Hire Ebonics Linguists

Is the slang used by some African Americans, including some drug dealers, a foreign language? The Smoking Gun reports the DEA is seeking to hire ebonics linguists to assist in their drug investigations, particularly on wiretaps. They even have the contract.

A maximum of nine Ebonics experts will work with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Atlanta field division, where the linguists, after obtaining a “DEA Sensitive” security clearance, will help investigators decipher the results of “telephonic monitoring of court ordered nonconsensual intercepts, consensual listening devices, and other media”

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.

Case law involving Ebonics arises far more frequently in civil cases, particularly workplace harassment and discrimination cases. One court opinion says "Ebonics" is also known as "African American Vernacular English." (Webster's II New College Dict. (2001) p. 356, col. 1.)

In my experience, drug agents frequently misinterpret the conversations they hear on the wiretaps, and that includes Ebonics as well as official languages like Spanish or Hmong. I don't think their reliability or their methodology should pass muster under Daubert. But there's very little case law on it. [More...]

A defense expert could be useful to demonstrate that the case agents were mistaken in their interpretations of the intercepted calls, to prepare for a Daubert hearing challenging the reliability of their testimony and at the hearing challenging the validity of the wiretaps. I wonder how many courts have refused to allow them to testify in criminal cases. If a number of them have, how can they approve Ebonics translators?

One inmate brought a habeas action challenging his lawyer's effectiveness for failing to call a Ebonics expert to challenge the Agent's interpretations. He lost. The court called the expert a "Black language" expert. Stevenson v. Yates, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88637 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 16, 2008)

In United States v. Williams, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 168, 3-4 (7th Cir. Ill. Jan. 4, 2000), the defense called a Ebonics expert at sentencing, and the Court referred to the expert as "a purported expert on African-American English (Ebonics)."

McIntoush testified that the phrase "hit him" might mean "page him" or "call him," and that the phrase "gonna get his ass tonight" did not necessarily relate to criminal activity, but might instead mean "pick him up" or "hook up with him." McIntoush opined that Williams more likely would have used other phrases had he meant to convey an intent to commit robbery, such as "break [*4] him" or "stick him up."

In a civil case reported at Underwood v. La Salle Univ., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88959, 15-16 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 3, 2007), an African American student sued LaSalle University for discrimination, saying he was disabled because of Ebonics. The Court described it, quoting this source, as:

This is African-American English, especially when considered as a distinct language or dialect with linguistic features related to or derived from those of certain West African languages, rather than as a non-standard variety of English.

The most detailed explanation is in a case called Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School Dist. Board, 473 F. Supp. 1371, 1372 ( E.D. Mich. 1979):

The issue before this court is whether the defendant School Board has violated Section 1703(f) of Title 20 of the United States Code as its actions relate to the 11 black children who are plaintiffs in this case and who are students in the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School operated by the defendant School Board. It is alleged that the children speak a version of "black English," "black vernacular" or "black dialect" as their home and community language that impedes their equal participation in the instructional programs, and that the school has not taken appropriate action to overcome the barrier. ...This case is not an effort on the part of the plaintiffs to require that they be taught "black English" or that their instruction throughout their schooling be in "black English," or that a dual language program be provided.

The Court summarized the testimony of experts on Ebonics from what it calls "carefully researched projects":

All of the distinguished researchers and professionals testified as to the existence of a language system, which is a part of the English language but different in significant respects from the standard English used in the school setting, the commercial world, the world of the arts and science, among the professions and in government. It is and has been used at some time by 80% Of the black people of this country and has as its genesis the transactional or pidgin language of the slaves, which after a generation or two became a Creole language. Since then it has constantly been refined and brought closer to the standard English as blacks have been brought closer to the mainstream of society. It still flourishes in areas where there are concentrations of black people.

It contains aspects of Southern dialect and is used largely by black people in their casual conversation and informal talk. There are many characteristic features found in "black English" but some of the principal ones identified by the testifying experts as being significant are:

  • The use of the verb "be" to indicate a reality that is recurring or continuous over time.
  • The deletion [**13] of some form of the verb "to be."
  • The use of the third person singular verbs without adding the "s" or "z" sound.
  • The use of the "f" sound for the "th" sound at the end or in the middle of a word.
  • The use of an additional word to denote plurals rather than adding an "s" to the noun.
  • Non-use of "s" to indicate possessives.
  • The elimination of "l" or "r" sounds in words.
  • The use of words with different meanings.
  • The lack of emphasis on the use of tense in verbs.
  • The deletion of final consonants.
  • The use of double subjects.
  • The use of "it" instead of "there."

The Court continued:

The substance of the thoughtful testimony of the experts also indicated that because "black English" does not discriminate among some sounds which are distinguished in standard English, teachers experience difficulty in getting the students to use correct pronunciation. The experts further testified, however, that efforts to instruct the children in standard English by teachers who failed to appreciate that the children speak a dialect which is acceptable in the home and peer community can result in the children becoming ashamed of their language, and thus impede the learning process. In this respect, the black dialect appears to be different than the usual foreign languages because a foreign language is not looked down on by the teachers. The evidence also suggests that there are fewer reading role models among the poor black families than among families in the rest of society.

Finally, it is clear that black children who succeed, and many do, learn to be bilingual. They retain fluency in "black English" to maintain status in the community and they become fluent in standard English to succeed in the general society. They achieve in this way by learning to "code switch" from one to the other depending on the circumstances.

All of the experts testified that the language used is a specific system that has been used by blacks and continues to be used by blacks in casual conversation and informal talk. It is a language system having its genesis among black people. In many areas of the country where blacks predominate, many among them, particularly the poor and those with lesser education and their children, speak this dialect among themselves although they may be quite capable of speaking eloquently in standard English and although they do speak standard English when talking to community outsiders. "Black English" is a dialect of a segment of the black population and is used by them only a part of the time.

The court ends with this summary:

The language of "black English" has been shown to be a distinct, definable version of English, different from standard English of the school and the general world of communications. It has definite language patterns, syntax, grammar and history.

In some communities and among some people in this country, it is the customary mode of oral, informal communication.

A significant number of blacks in the United States use or have used some version of "black English" in oral communications. Many of them incorporate one or more aspects of "black English" in their more formal talk.

"Black English" is not a language used by the mainstream of society black or white. It is not an acceptable method of communication in the educational world, in the commercial community, in the community of the arts and science, or among professionals. It is largely a system that is used in casual and informal communication among the poor and lesser educated.

The instruction in standard English of children who use "black English" at home by insensitive teachers who treat the children's language system as inferior can cause a barrier to learning to read and use standard English. The language is not as discriminating in its use of sounds as is standard English and much of its grammar is simpler. There are fewer reading models in the life of a child who uses "black English."

Back to the drug agents. How do they get it wrong? In one case I remember, the agent said "“Crackalackin’ “ is code for “Have crack for sale.” Here's a XXL Magazine, April, 2005 Interview with Rapper Brian “Nomb” Jackson on growing up in Charlotte, N.C.

Realizing that hip-hop wasn’t exactly crackalackin’ in North Cackalack, Nomb relocated to California in 2001.

Another 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.

I wonder what the agents are using as training manuals? Are they using intercepted communications from real cases? I would think the Courts wouldn't be happy if this is the case. Wiretaps are authorized for the purpose of gathering evidence to use in a future criminal proceeding. Once the case is over, given the privacy intrusion, I don't think the transcripts should be used for other purposes, like training linguists who get hired by the DEA.

< Federal Court Grants Injunction Against Stem Cell Research | Monday Night Open Thread >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Bravo to the court (none / 0) (#1)
    by The Addams Family on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 10:40:12 PM EST
    the whole notion of Ebonics was subjected to much ridicule (by reactionary and/or racist white folks) in Oakland where i live in the early 2000s - but as an erstwhile linguist w/a concentration in phonetics i can tell you that Black American English is a distinctive dialect that s/b studied & preserved - no less than Catalan which began as a dialect of Spanish

    in fact not just AA students but also white students from lower, lower-middle & working class backgrounds have to master Academese, which is no less a dialect than Ebonics

    except that Ebonics is so much richer & wittier

    about effing time this conversation is raised especially in view of inequities in the penal system

    Catalan (none / 0) (#5)
    by gaylib on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 07:32:34 AM EST
    did not begin as a dialect of Spanish, it evolved from Romance (vulgar latin) parallel to Castellano(what we call Spanish).  They are, and always have been two distinct languages.  Your comparison with Ebonics is not valid.

    I can think of two cases I've been in (none / 0) (#2)
    by Peter G on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 11:01:19 PM EST
    ... that arguably turned on this problem.  One, where the issue was whether "my man," in context, meant "my friend" or "my dealer."  (The referenced "man" in question was my client.)  The other, where the issue was the meaning, in context, of "hook up with" -- did it just mean arrange to meet, or did it mean make a drug deal?  (All concerned agreed, at least, that "hook up" in this context did not mean "have casual sex.")

    Interestting stuff... (none / 0) (#8)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 09:33:34 AM EST
    It's all about the context...in slang many terms have mutliple meanings...just look at "f*ck", which can mean just about anything in its many forms.

    I'll call a friend "my man", the bush doctor could be "my man" cuz we are friends, but more often he is "the man"...while "the man" can also mean "the boss man" or "whitey", it's more traditional slang usage...or mean an impressive individual, as in "that dude is the man."

    "Hook up" could be simply getting together with a friend, or a sexual encounter...we don't use it in my circles to mean a drug deal...we'd say "scoring" or "getting sorted" or "copping".


    Yes (none / 0) (#11)
    by squeaky on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 10:10:54 AM EST
    Particularly interesting, and confusing in that the strategy of oppressed, in this case anyway, is to use words that have  opposite meaning. Instinctively it keeps the dogs confused and off the scent..

    up is down...  


    Absolutely... (none / 0) (#12)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 11:03:13 AM EST
    and the language constantly evolves to stay one step ahead...if the DEA hires somebody to translate into english, their knowledge of ebonics/street slang would be rendered obsolete quickly unless they keep an ear very close to the street.

    Let's Not Forget (none / 0) (#15)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 12:11:33 PM EST
    That slang isn't an exacting form of communication and unlike proper English, there isn't a reference and like the above examples, sometimes the parties involved aren't even on the same page.  Like any conversation, there is room for error.  This happens to everyone, from time to time using proper English, using slang can only increase the odds of miscommunication.

    Add into the mix the regional and ethic variation and I can totally see a innocuous conversation interpreted as something sinister.

    It's one thing to get people in who understand slang, but it's quite another not to recognize that it's continuously evolving.  I wonder how long it took the DEA to realize bad meant good.


    And to complicate matters further (none / 0) (#16)
    by jondee on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 12:53:13 PM EST
    there are specific alternate vernaculars that have been traditionally used by "criminal underworld" types from Russia, England, France etc..A friend of mine just finished devoting six months or so to learning "prison Russian".

    It's a stay-one-step-ahead-of-the-law, living-language tradition that's been going on for centuries..

    The fifteenth century poet/rogue Villon is notoriously difficult to translate because his writings are replete with the underworld slang and double entendres of the Paris of his time..



    It's sad (none / 0) (#4)
    by BrassTacks on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 12:19:16 AM EST
    That people in this country aren't educated well enough that they can use proper English.  It kills any chance for them getting real jobs.  It's just sad.  

    can't or don't? (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by CST on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 09:57:02 AM EST
    I think you are making an assumption here that may or may not be true.

    When I am with my friends I talk differently than I do when I am at work.


    Proper English (none / 0) (#18)
    by Quarky on Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 09:32:19 PM EST
    When I hear the phrase "proper English," I think back to the great respect given to the poet Robbie Burns in "proper English" anthologies, which would go to great pains to show deference to the dialect he used.  I guess Scotland gets a pass, black America doesn't!

    It may be about language (none / 0) (#6)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 09:08:36 AM EST

    Or it may be about patronage jobs.  What are the odds that anyone but an Obama voter will meet the qualifications for these jobs?

    Yeah, ... that's it (none / 0) (#17)
    by Yman on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 09:31:52 PM EST
    The secret plan is to pay back a maximum of nine "Obama voters" with these "patronage jobs".

    Can't get anything past you ...


    Thanks to whoever deleted my (none / 0) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 09:27:19 AM EST
    "Airplane" 'jive talking' quotes, because life - and especially ebonics - are just sooooo dang serious...

    First thing I thought of too... (none / 0) (#10)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 10:00:15 AM EST
    June Cleaver in "Airplane".

    "Stewardess, I speak jive." (none / 0) (#13)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 11:53:56 AM EST
    Great interview here with the writers of "Airplane" and the two actors who made up the jive "language" for the  movie.

    If whoever the deleter of my original comment is could find some sense of humor he/she might actually see some application of the linked interview with the super-serious topic at hand.


    You know those 70's-80's comedies... (none / 0) (#14)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 12:04:00 PM EST
    "Airplane", "Blazing Saddles", "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka"...people get bent outta shape about 'em these days...hyper-sensitivity.