Slang is normally considered a form of language that has little rules or order. Yet a form of slang in the French language, called Verlan, is impressively systematic. The nearest British equivalent is perhaps Cockney Rhyming slang, except Verlan is far more widespread. Verlan, like slang in general, serves as an identity marker and a way to talk in secret. It is a remarkable ‘system’ of slang, allowing an unlimited number of words to be transformed by following the rules.
Verlan words are formed through inverting the syllables of a word, for example tomber (to fall) becomes béton. There are more complicated ‘rules’ regarding one syllable verbs where the sounds are reversed, often become a two-syllable word with an ‘Ə’ schwa sound. This is a very easy (lazy) vowel sound to make, so it’s the sound we use in English when we speak quickly, for example the ‘o’ and ‘a’ in gonna or all the vowel sounds in woulda, coulda, shoulda. So a Verlan family has the reum, the reup and the reuf, or the mère (mother), the père (father) and the frère (brother).
Many Verlan words have diffused into mainstream language, partly through rap and text language. Examples are keum from mec (guy) or trome from métro (metro). One of the Francophone world’s biggest musical stars, Stromae, whose song Alors On Danse was a hit in the UK a few years back, chose a name which is Verlan for Maestro. The media and companies show familiarity with this type of slang to enhance their street rep, and Verlan words have entered the French dictionary.
There is some resistance to Verlan, however. In 2009 Nadine Morano, then Secretary of the State for Family, in the right-wing UMP government, in a typically French preoccupation about how immigrants and particularly Muslims ‘should’ behave, said she wanted young French Muslims to avoid this type of slang. Teachers are alleged to be annoyed at students saying cimer instead of merci: Verlan retains connotations of coarseness.
The stigma attached to it, however, makes it stick as an identity marker. Conversely, the acceptance of many of these words into normal French vocabulary has the opposite effect: it encourages more production and innovation in Verlan so that its original functions as a way to express belonging with a certain group and talk in code are not lost. And verlanophones have developed a clever method: re-verlanisation of certain words. For example, the slang word for a police officer in French is flic. In Verlan this becomes keuf. And the re-verlanised form is feuk, which shows added disdain for the forces of order by calling them something resembling a certain English word.
Indeed, Verlan words are not simply mirror images of the original words with the same definition and connotations. They take on their own signification. Beur (from arabe, meaning Arab) and its re-verlanised form rebeu are terms used to describe someone born in France but with parents who are immigrants from North Africa. Beur is now a widespread term with no particular connotation of vulgarity. Simiarly, femme (woman or wife) changes to meuf and then feum. While meuf means girl and ma meuf means ‘my girl’, feum is a derogatory, more objectifying word for a woman. Pourri, literally meaning rotten, goes to ripou, used to describe a corrupt copper (or un feuk ripou).
The words that are verlanised show the daily life of underprivileged youths in underprivileged suburbs. Many of the terms refer to taboo subjects like drugs, crime or sex: thus the desire for slang as a euphemism or code word. Verlan can use English or Arabic words, reflecting the influence of American culture and North African immigrants. For example kebla, meaning a black person.
Verlan is a reaction to regimented French society. There is a strong strain of traditionalism in France: things must remain French. Change and foreign influences are inherently bad. The French language has long been treated as a rigid and complex structure which must be regulated. The Académie Française, which exists as an authority for the language, tells the French how to find other expressions for anglicisms. For example the expression donner son go (to give the go-ahead) is sharply criticised as “an expression which is not correct in any of these two languages”. Much better to use donner son feu vert.
Yet of course language is not rigid or controllable. Verlan is an imaginative way of recreating and breathing new life into French. Impressive. Or chanmé, as the céfrans might say.