Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ebonics still pushes hot buttons -- Aug. 26, 2010 column


Americans reacted with our usual cool-eyed calm to news that the Drug Enforcement Administration intends to hire Ebonics translators.

Ha. I wish that were true. In fact, the hot buzz on TV and the Web quickly escalated from “bizarre,” “truly strange” and “Ridiculous!” to “Have we lost our minds?” and ugly, emotional, dialect-ridden rants.

Many people evidently find it horrifying that the government would “reward” people who speak Ebonics with jobs. Others object to the government’s recognizing Ebonics at all.

“Speak English and forget the jive,” one reader commented online.

“This country has gone absolutely crazy,” said another.

The source of the uproar were reports that the DEA is trying to recruit nine fluent Ebonics experts in the Southeast to help translate wiretapped conversations of suspected drug dealers. The translators will have to render the conversations into good English so the evidence can be used in court.

Last I heard, nobody wants drug dealers to go free merely because they use a vocabulary that’s unintelligible to white-bread investigators. It’s hard to fault the government for hiring contract workers who can comprehend and testify about what criminals say. The program isn’t without potential problems, however. It’s unclear how the proficiency of Ebonics experts will be proved to judges’ satisfaction. That’s an issue for another day.

Nobody complains that the DEA is seeking translators of more than a hundred other languages – Arabic, Spanish, French, Sicilian, Afghan Persian, Vietnamese – including the obscure Ga, spoken in Ghana, and Hakka (Mauritius).

It’s use of the word Ebonics that’s the red flag. Had DEA called Ebonics by one of its more formal, academic monikers – African American Vernacular English, Vernacular Black English or Black English Vernacular – some people think it might have avoided controversy. Of course, it also would have been criticized for sneakiness.

Ebonics, as it’s known to the public, has evolved into an urban language that’s no longer spoken only by African Americans, DEA Special Agent Michael Sanders told the Associated Press. The Atlanta DEA office “saw a need for this in a couple of their investigations,” he said.

A spokesman for U.S. English told CNN the advocacy group supports DEA’s attempt to understand drug dealers’ conversations.

The last time a government entity tried to recognize Ebonics, a blended word from “ebony” and “phonics,” Bill Clinton was president. A firestorm ensued in December 1996, when the Oakland, Calif., school board passed a resolution declaring Ebonics a second language and the primary language of its African American students.

The board said it was simply acknowledging the language students spoke at home. Declaring students bilingual, however, also could have made the school system eligible for special federal funds. Bowing to pressure, a new school board undid the resolution the next month.

The underlying issue is the nature of language and how it changes. One description, used by the Linguistic Society of America and others, is that language is an enormous house that has to be reconstructed by each new occupant, who has to discover its design as the work is in progress, and while the previous occupants are still living in it.

The linguistic society stood up for Ebonics after the Oakland controversy. It passed a resolution in 1997 saying that characterizations of Ebonics as "slang," "mutant," "lazy," "defective," "ungrammatical," or "broken English" are incorrect and demeaning.

Some linguists have spent decades trying to convince the public that “the language variety of African Americans…is systematic and rule-governed.” For them, DEA’s announcement was upsetting and frustrating, because, “The only people we have managed to convince is the DEA,” wrote H. Samy Alim and Imani Perry on

Today, while Ebonics can still excite controversy, it seems decidedly last century. The focus of English preservationists has shifted to the influx of Spanish speakers.

The linguistic society recently passed a resolution opposing an Arizona Department of Education’s directive to remove teachers who speak English with “heavy accents” from some classrooms with Spanish-speaking students. The society said there’s no such thing as unaccented speech “because everyone’s speech is characterized by the pronunciation patterns of their dialects and styles within those dialects.”

The perception of an accent is more about the attitudes of the listener than the speaker, the resolution said.

The same could be said about the uproar over Ebonics; it’s more about the attitudes of listeners than the speakers.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting topic presented effectively. Good work Ms. Mercer.

    We should hire Ebonics interpreters where they are needed by officials, but we should insist, in our schools, that students learn proper English.