For all the talk about what a subtle business the n-word is, the concept of Ebonics is just as tricky. And in the wake of the theatrically pat culmination of the Dr. Laura drama — her exiting stage right — here we are grappling with the Drug Enforcement Administration sending out a call for Ebonics translators.
And as usual when Ebonics is proposed as something other than ghetto slang, the media are alight with people, black and white, ridiculing the notion of Ebonics as "a language." It's an odd thing: On the one hand, as recently as January the same people were bristling at Harry Reid's implication that black people harbor a "Negro dialect." And yet this week, said same are swooning over Spike Lee's latest documentary on post-Katrina New Orleans, replete with black people who sound off in fluent "Negro dialect" being readily embraced as bards of the race.
There is a DuBoisian double consciousness regarding Ebonics, then, and in this DEA case, what DuBois would have termed the "African" sentiment — warm, in-group, proprietary — is most useful. Namely, the DEA might be on to something.
Understanding this first requires getting past the idea that black English — a term I will use, since "Ebonics" sounds more like a disease — is just a fig-leaf locution for broken English. It is actually different English. You wouldn't know it, though, from how often even specialists eagerly describe it as just leaving off consonants and the verb "to be" and then wonder why America continues to think of it as broken language. But there's much more to it than that.
"Folks be talkin," someone says. That does not mean that people are talking right now — it means that people talk on a regular basis, as in, "Folks be talkin whenever somethin like dat happens." That usage of be is a very particular piece of grammar, expressing a nuance that standard English leaves to context. Black English is a seemingly still water that runs deep.
Another one: Take a black-English sentence like, "I'm-a call his ass at two in the morning!" There have been two lengthy articles in the flagship academic linguistics journal Language on that usage — yes, usage — that reveal that how that rendition of ass in black English is as complex as knowing when to use the subjunctive in French.
So black English is not broken but different. OK — but even if it is coherent, is it different enough from standard English to necessitate a translator?
But that is plainly not true. The line between language and dialect is fuzzy. Portuguese and Spanish are definitely distinct languages, but Portuguese speakers can comprehend quite a bit of Spanish, and it can be hard for an American to keep the two separate in their mouths (although the Spanish have a harder time parsing Portuguese). Swedish and Danish are even closer. They are called languages, but their speakers can converse: To a Dane, Swedish is something to adjust to rather than to learn from the ground up.
Black English and standard English are even closer still — not the same, but almost. During the Oakland, Calif., school-board controversy, I argued that the mini-gap between standard and black English could not be what was holding black kids back in school. The answer to the question "Is black English a language?" is "Yes — it's English."
Yet, this DEA proposal is different: The agency is seeking people who can help translate recordings of black people speaking casually. It is faced with live speech rather than words tidy on a page. And casual speech, among all of us, is messy. Imagine a Martian trying to learn English and hearing us say things like "Tsgo!" for "Let's go" and "Shoulda" for "Should have."
And then imagine a recording of, especially, younger black folks saying perfectly ordinary things like, "Yayeengotnone" for "Ya ain't even got none." And saying it fast, maybe while laughing, and as just one clip within a running statement, overlapped by two other people pitching in with utterances full of similarly casual — i.e., messy — little word packets. "You know what I'm sayin?" is a solidly entrenched expression in modern black English. Note, however, that in rapid speech it can come out as, roughly, "Msehn?" And then suppose on the tape that somebody happens to drop a can on the floor while that's being said — and that the transcriber listening is a white woman from Boise, Idaho.
Pile up one thing like this after another and you can imagine that transcribing live black English is something a speaker of the dialect might do best. Two things I have actually seen happen are useful here.
First, tapes of ex-slaves speaking were made as a Works Progress Administration project. They were first transcribed by well-intentioned whites, and at times what they made of the tapes was a little odd. For decades, the official transcription of one person's description of what it was like hearing about Emancipation had it that the slaves listened to Northerners telling them to stay in the South and "went for" it. It never felt right, especially because the syntax was odd: "The colored people sure went for!" Nobody says that. Transcribers steeped in black dialect later gleaned that the person had said that the colored people "been po'" — i.e., were poor, something that seems quite natural.
Upon which we return to that woman from Boise working for the DEA, trying to understand black English spoken in the style of The Wire. The DEA is not crazy to seek black people raised in the dialect who would not be thrown by the scrim curtain of recording in getting every Ebonic word, knowmsayin'?
To wit: The DEA's black-English outreach cannot be logically dismissed by those crowing that black English isn't a language. It is complex language, like everybody else's. The question is whether it's not English language. And it is. But if we're talking about talk rather than primers — just unself-conscious slangy, mushy talk — then if the DEA really wants to Know-What-They're-Sayin', then maybe it does need to use people who, well, do.
John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University and a contributing editor to The New Republic.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.