DEA Hiring Ebonics Translators

Two weeks ago various news outlets reported that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is hiring a number of translators ("linguists" in government parlance) for Ebonics (African-American Vernacular English or AAVE), so they can better understand recorded conversations of African-American drug dealers.

Professor of linguistics John McWhorter wades into the discussion in this September 6 interview on NPR. McWhorter is absolutely correct in what he says about AAVE being a dialect of English that is intrinsically no better or worse than standard American English. But he, like many of the commentators, miss the point that people who are skilled in the dialect are probably not what the DEA needs.

While McWhorter is right to point out the subtle differences in meaning that different grammatical constructions can convey, these are not the impediment to understanding that is facing the DEA. The dialectal differences between AAVE and standard English are not all that great. The problem is that drug dealers talk in a rapidly changing cant and employ codes to disguise what they’re speaking about. Cryptographers and ex-drug dealers who know the argot of the drug corner are what’s needed.

Here is a sample of what the translators would more likely be faced with. This example, from opening scene of episode 7, season 1 of the television show The Wire, is fictional, but it gets the point across that the problem in comprehension is not dialect, but slang and code. In the scene, a group of detectives are listening to a recording of a wiretapped drug conversation. Two of the detectives, Carver and Freamon, are black. The others are white. Note that it is (very) white Pryzbylewski, who in the show is continually seen working on puzzles, who is most adept at deciphering the coded messages:

Wire Voice: Low man scrapped yo. He all the way down. But we going to start fresh on the latest tomorrow, down from up North.

Herc: No problem.

Pryzbylewski: No problem?

Herc: Yeah, yo’s talkin’ about some guy named Lohman, who’s down with the strep, like he’s sick.

McNulty: And the last part?

Herc: And the last part is something about how he’s gonna to start up a Fashion Lady or some shit.

Carver: Fashion Lady?

Herc: I’m fluent in the Perkins Homes and Latrobe Towers dialects, but I haven’t quite mastered the Franklin Terrace.

Pryzbylewski: He’s saying they’re sold out in the low rises so tomorrow they’re gonna start fresh with a new package.

McNulty: That’s what you hear?

Freamon: Listen again.

Wire: Low man scrapped, yo.

Freamon: Low man, meaning the low-rise pit.

Wire: He all the way down.

Freamon: Is down to scraps on the last package.

Wire: But we going to start fresh on the latest tomorrow, down from up North.

Freamon: Tomorrow, he’ll start fresh on the latest package.

Carver: Damn, how you all hear it so good?

Pryzbylewski: “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields sold in a market down in New Orleans.”

Herc: What the fuck is that?

Pryzbylewski: Rolling Stones. First two lines to “Brown Sugar.” I bet you’ve heard that song five hundred times, but you never knew, right? I used to put my head to the stereo speaker and play that record over and over.

Carver: That explains a lot, actually.

Wire: So, wait on black, yo?

Carver: What’s white on black?

Herc: Wait on black, right? Even I heard that shit.

Pryzbylewski: Black’s code for Stinkum. We picked that up once we got on his pager.

Freamon: Now, there’s gonna be a re-up of four G-packs in the low-rise court. Stinkum is on the re-up and it’s gonna go down around noon.

McNulty: Are you sure about all that?

[Freamon writes a pager message on a piece of paper, “5-21-07-1111”, and hands it to McNulty. Herc and Carver look at it quizzically.]

Pryzbylewski: Turn it upside down.

[The paper now reads, “1111-LO-12-S”.]

Pryzbylewski: Four hash marks in a row, one for each G-pack.

McNulty: “LO” for low rises.

Herc: “12” for the time.

Carver: “S” for Stinkum.

McNulty: How long to figure that out?

Pryzbylewski: Four or five hours.

Carver: You sit here looking at beeper messages for five hours at a time?

Pryzbylewski: I don’t know, it’s kinda fun figuring shit out.

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