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DEA: the E is for 'Ebonics'

Dear Reader: I quit. It's not you. It's just that there’s a higher calling. My country needs me. See, the Drug Enforcement Administration, a division of the Justice Department, is looking for nine linguists who are experts in “Ebonics.” And if you've paid attention to my writing, you know I loves me some "folks," the "Lawd" and "errybody."

Okay, my quitting was a joke. But the nine linguists thing? That’s all true. According to the Smoking Gun, the DEA is looking to hire 2,100 linguists fluent in 114 languages. The Atlanta field division is looking to hire nine linguists fluent in “Ebonics.” Where to begin? First, of all, it ain’t even a real language. A dialect? Sure. But a language like Spanish, Vietnamese or Korean, which the Atlanta office also needs help with? Seriously? Then that would make me and other African Americans you know bilingual. After all, I can lop off words and run them together with the best of them when 1. I’m comfortable with you and think you can hang; 2. I’m with family, 'cause that’s how we talk; or 3. I’ve had a third martini -- and I don’t care.

America got wide exposure to an earlier form of “Ebonics” when it was known as “Jive” in the movie “Airplane!” Actress Barbara Billingsly -- adored as the wholesome and white-bread June Cleaver in “Leave it to Beaver” -- gave this memorable performance in this scene from the 1980 film.

I blame Oakland for introducing the word “Ebonics” -- an etymological gunshot wedding of “ebony” and “phonics.” The school district there set off a national firestorm in late 1996 when it proposed a resolution to recognize “Black English” as a speech pattern and to use it to improve the academic performance of African American students. And now here we are. The federal government is looking for contractors who will find “Ebonics” speakers who listen in on wiretaps and other deep cover work for the DEA. I have three questions. How is proficiency measured? Who does the testing? What are the courses like? Last I checked “Ebonics” was not offered by Berltiz or Rosetta Stone. But I must say I’m impressed with the DEA’s moxy. Or is it chutzpah? As Mrs. Cleaver said, “Chump don’ want nah help, chump don’ get da help.”

By Jonathan Capehart  | August 24, 2010; 7:22 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Next: The party crack-up, cont.


Having read this 114-language list, I can advise the DEA that they're going to have some pretty unhappy Albanians, Bosnians, Bulgarians and Croats on their hands. Macedonians and Serbs, on the other hand, will probably be ecstatic. (Unless, of course, they're not.)

Posted by: Itzajob | August 24, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Hilarious!!! The problem is one generation of African-Americans can be just as baffled as anyone else when trying to understand the ebonics of another generation of African-Americans.

We love us some slang!

Posted by: Raiche58 | August 24, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Would that be the ebonics from the South or North. I'm from the deep south; it's not the same as northern ebonics.

Love that clip from Airplane! The funny thing is that I'm Black and couldn't understand a word!

Posted by: | August 24, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Have we all lost our minds? The 1996 introduction of "Ebonics" by some Oakland teachers was an attempt to get additional funding. The teachers believed that African-American students were not given their fair share of the various additional school board special funding. End of story

Posted by: munsonb | August 24, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

I find this interesting. Of course the Oakland School district only introduced the world to the term. I think the scholars that use the term might take offense to you trivalizing it. Robert Williams is credited with turing the phrase and many lingust now use it as another way to describe African American Vernacular English to include John Baugh. You just like making fun of DEA rather than really address the issue. DEA needs someone that understands the dialect and they included it in a list of other needs. I find it interesting that your generation takes a significantly different view of the issue.

Posted by: staterighter | August 24, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Dialects and slang can be a real problem. I know someone who's native in Spanish from the Caribbean who arrived in here in south Texas to find that, at least initially, he often couldn't understand what the local people were saying.

And I remember standing on a subway platform in London and realizing, after a minute or two, that the people next to me were speaking English. My local guide said that it was Yorkshire -- their ancestors were speaking English long before mine were.

Posted by: TexLex | August 24, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Laura needs a job.

Posted by: Please_Fix_VAs_Roads | August 24, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

DEA doesn't need translators. It needs a diverse workforce. This is just plain pitiful and it would be funny, were it not so tragic.

Posted by: KREvans | August 24, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

DEA needs translators who understand what is being said wiretaps so they can enforce the law. If that means advertising for people who speak Ebonics, Martian or Klingon; so be it. They should actually be commended for recognizing the need for specialists in an dialect common among the criminal element they are targeting and acting on that recognition in the face of certain ridecule. And yes, they may want to consider hiring a specialist in Klingon as well. The Trekies have developed enough of a vocabulary for their made up language for drug dealers to use it as a code DEA would find difficult to understand without professional assistance.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | August 24, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Maybe the folks in Atlanta are trying to get back-door approval of "Georgia-Cracker" as a distinct language. Might get the graduation rate up in some of their communities too.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | August 24, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

There's a pretty rich literature in linguistics journals on "Ebonics." Do an internet search for BEV (Black English Vernacular). It's pretty widely studied under a less silly name than Ebonics.

Posted by: CoolRidgeTaylor | August 24, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

KREvans - It isn't easy for "ebonic" types to pass the background investigation, polygraph and drug tests you know?

Posted by: madmike272 | August 24, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

As mentioned by CoolRidge Taylor, the author of this piece needs to do a little research on the term "Black English Vernacular" which is a legitimate and recognized dialect of American English. While the government might be using incorrect terminology it seems pretty logical to employ people who speak a specific dialect of English that might not be understandable to someone, say, university-educated with a middle-class background like I bet Mr. Capeheart is.

Posted by: whardinholland | August 24, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Listen to "Gerald O'Hara" in "Gone With The Wind" and "Bathsheba's" fieldhands in "Far from the Madding CRowd" and you will know the TRUE roots of Ebonics.

Posted by: edismae | August 24, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

One good way to make this a free country would be to eliminate the DEA and end the failed and futile War on Drugs. That would be good for Mexico, too, and permanently put their Drug Cartel out of business. Of course, such a course of action would make far too much sense for Americans to ever agree to do such a thing.

Posted by: samsara15 | August 24, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

Wanted: Interpreter for ghetto thugs is more like it.. This country has gone absolutely crazy . What a waste of time and money.

Posted by: JUNGLEJIM123 | August 25, 2010 6:43 AM | Report abuse

All natural based drugs should be legalized, and the drug war halted. The system is deeply corrupt and causes even more damage to the countries that supply our drug needs. The only drugs that should really be illegal are the designer drugs (meth, ecstasy, etc).

THEN, the DEA could simply be abolished.

Posted by: arumph01 | August 25, 2010 7:12 AM | Report abuse

Are they hiring Spanglish speakers?

Posted by: nuke41 | August 25, 2010 8:03 AM | Report abuse

Oh, stewardess...I speak jive.

Posted by: jpmenavich | August 25, 2010 8:12 AM | Report abuse

How about Atlanta DEA checking their own office? They must have some local employees who are black.

Posted by: csd426 | August 25, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Lay 'em down and smack 'em, yack 'em.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | August 25, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

They may also want some "down wiff it" fashion consultants to work with their undercovers. The Kangol is a nice touch, but the white socks with your brogans and brown Haggar slacks are gonna get you capped.

Posted by: Ralphinjersey | August 25, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Don't know how to say this in ebonics, but we need to eliminate the DEA and that would automatically terminate this silly language program.

What is truly funny about ebonics was posted here earlier by zzishate:

"Would that be the ebonics from the South or North. I'm from the deep south; it's not the same as northern ebonics. Love that clip from Airplane! The funny thing is that I'm Black and couldn't understand a word!"

Posted by: Hazmat77 | August 25, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

In this horrible economy, rather than rewarding people for not learning common English - I think DEA agents should learn Ebonics on their own nickel in their own free time, if they want to keep their jobs.

Common sense needs to prevail. Ebonics is a fad and a frill. We can't afford it or to squander our tax dollars on nonsense.

Posted by: mlemac | August 25, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

This is not all that far off. Back in the late 70's I had to conduct an employee interview of a dude from rural South Carolina. I had to have this guy's California cousin interpert, as I could not understand a thing the guy was saying.

Posted by: commland | August 25, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I can translate hillbilly if they need me to!

Posted by: trident420 | August 25, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Bet, babe, slide a piece of the porter. Drink side, run the java.

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | August 25, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Wha' kine o' keshtuns will day ax on de ezam?

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | August 25, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Shoot...what about Cajun? Makes "Ebonics" look like te Kings English.

Posted by: luca_20009 | August 25, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

One point that some of you are missing is that a LEO or paramedic or any other public servant in an attempt to render help or intervene in a situation,(or even the DEA) cannot UNDERSTAND this type of language....what a disgrace in the USA!

Posted by: missmolly2 | August 31, 2010 12:06 AM | Report abuse

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