Friday, August 27, 2010

"Ebonics translator" followup ...

The Washington Times has a piece on what's being talked about as the 'Ebonics translator' jobs at the Drug Enforcement Agency. The headline includes "Effort isn't official recognition of language" and the article opens with a comment that the DEA "does not recognize Ebonics as a formal language". What the hell is a 'formal language' here? The DEA has a pressing practical need to understand how people talk, and ideology has them and many others struggling to deny this way of talking any kind of status, beyond 'street slang'.

Here's a quote from the article where an actual expert makes the point:
John Baugh, a director of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and a specialist on linguistics, praised the DEA for seeking the translators and said he wishes other government agencies "would have an appreciation of the linguistic consequences of the slave trade."

Mr. Baugh said translators can be helpful because speakers of African American Vernacular English can easily be misunderstood by others … .
We're seeing the emergence of exactly the issue my earlier post was poking at with a stick: The government and the press are getting ground up in the gears between trying to deny that African-American Vernacular English is a 'language' and the need to have people on board who have real command of this variety.


Johannes said...

What's the problem with classifying 'Ebonic' as a dialect of english?
A translator would be usefull, but it wouldn't be a distinct language.

namowal said...

It seems that part of the problem is the term 'ebonics'. Everyone thinks ebonics is a joke, while AAVE or similar terms do not automatically have the same effect on laymen. (Some of the comments on theagitator post linked to earlier make it clear the just using the word ebonics guarantees you will not be taken seriously.)

Johannes - I think most people think of ebonics as 'just slang' so they wouldn't even be willing to call it a dialect. Also, the word dialect is problematic b/c many people use it mean 'substandard' or 'primitive' speech. I once watched a documentary on the Moche civilization where they consistently referred to their language as a dialect even though they were not comparing it to other closely related languages. It was clear that they meant 'some primitive language' or at least 'some language spoken by primitive people'.