I saw this interesting headline on Google News recently: “DEA seeks Ebonics experts to help with cases“. And since an old friend and recent commenter had put African-American Vernacular English/Ebonics (I’ll just call it AAVE) in my mind, the story came at just the right time to convince me to click on it. (I was also motivated by that slight twinge of a fleeting thought that perhaps I could pass as an expert, since I am familiar with variation in American English, before I remembered that I don’t know anything about AAVE.)

The story was pretty interesting; in short, the Drug Enforcement Agency sees a potential need for translators from AAVE to Standard American English (SAE) for its investigations. Now, you might say that AAVE is merely a dialect of English, and that therefore any native speaker of English will do, but it’s not so easy. Michael Sanders, an agent at the DEA, said it nicely:

“Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.

‘You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.'”‘”*

More importantly, the syntax of AAVE and SAE are different in meaningful ways. For instance, AAVE has a complicated tense system (I’m getting this info from Ficket 1972). Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:

(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.

The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future. I’m not aware of any such structure to the tenses in SAE, and prior to reading the Ficket article, I was completely unaware of them in AAVE as well. This is why it’s important to have AAVE experts looking over the data, as AAVE neophytes will not be able to pick out this additional information. In fact, the differences between SAE and AAVE are pretty substantial.

But I’m not pointing this story out solely because it’s interesting or because I think the tense system of AAVE is kind of beautiful. I’m pointing it out because there is idiocy afoot, as always seems to happen when AAVE is discussed.

Back in 1996, the Oakland (Calif.) school board passed a resolution recognizing Ebonics/AAVE as a language. It was to be treated similarly to other non-English languages for the purposes of instruction — i.e., students raised speaking AAVE instead of SAE could receive some of the same programs that other English as a Second Language students. Speaking as a linguist, this is a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings, ignorance of the specifics, and imprecise wording on the resolution, the pretty good idea seemed like a horrible one to most people. Many people thought that children were going to be taught AAVE in place of SAE, which would have been a bad idea. Some thought the resolution stated that African-Americans are genetically predisposed to use AAVE over SAE.** And a lot were just appalled that AAVE could possibly be thought of something with any distinctive structure, since everyone knew it’s just defective English.*** But the key lesson here is that a good idea lost out because of widespread misinterpretation and a misguided protectionism for Standard English.

Returning to the DEA-looking-for-translators story, we see history repeating itself thanks to the lobbying group English First:

“Critics worry that the DEA’s actions could set a precedent.

‘Hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction,’ said Aloysius Hogan, the government relations director of English First, a national lobbying group that promotes the use of English.

‘I’m not aware of Ebonics training schools or tests. I don’t know how they’d establish that someone speaks Ebonics,’ he said. ‘I support the concept of pursuing drug dealers if they’re using code words, but this is definitely going in the wrong direction.'”

None of what Hogan says here makes any sense if you actually are familiar with the DEA’s goals. His quotes are talking about something else entirely. How is it going in the wrong direction to find someone who can convert essentially coded communication into a form that can be entered as evidence? Does English First support drug dealers? Judging from Hogan’s response, yes. He wants drug dealers pursued if they’re using code words, but apparently not if they’re speaking another language or dialect. Excuse me for shouting, but as a lobbyist, THIS GUY GETS TO TALK TO YOUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES MORE EASILY THAN YOU DO.

I don’t know what sort of fantasy world Hogan lives in (probably one where he and not Hulk is the most famous Hogan in the world), but saying that a language is of questionable merit doesn’t make it go away. If it did, the USSR would have eliminated a lot of Central Asian languages as less important than Russian. Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it. Hogan’s pigheadedness would only hamstring the DEA. I don’t see how he doesn’t see that.

*: Yes, that’s six apostrophes there. The quote was four-levels nested, sot here are two single quotes and two double quotes. I do believe this is the most apostrophes I have ever used at once and I am kind of excited.

**: The culprit there was the phrase “genetically based”, which was interpreted as referring to people’s knowledge of a language when really it was referring to the relationship between languages.

***: I am embarrassed to say I fell into this camp, although that was because I had had no linguistic training yet and also was 13 and thus an idiot.