ATLANTA — Federal agents are seeking to hire Ebonics translators to help interpret wiretapped conversations involving targets of undercover drug investigations.

The Drug Enforcement Administration recently sent memos asking companies that provide translation services to help it find nine translators in the Southeast who are fluent in Ebonics, Special Agent Michael Sanders said Monday.

Ebonics, which is also known as African American Vernacular English, has been described by the psychologist who coined the term as the combination of English vocabulary with African language structure.

Some DEA agents already help translate Ebonics, Sanders said. But he said wasn’t sure if the agency has ever hired outside Ebonics experts as contractors.

“They saw a need for this in a couple of their investigations,” he said. “And when you see a need — it may not be needed now — but we want the contractors to provide us with nine people just in case.”

The DEA’s decision, first reported by The Smoking Gun, evokes memories of the debate sparked in 1996 when the Oakland, Calif., school board suggested that black English was a separate language. Although the board later dropped the suggestion amid criticism, it set off a national discussion over whether Ebonics is a language, a dialect or neither.

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