Back-to-front slang

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.

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One thought on “Back-to-front slang

  1. French language has been transformed in thousands of ways by French people all along centuries . Only the French can know that . To express anything people, specially in low classes, have created myriads of metaphors, some even taking their roots in previous metaphors . This regards everything, feelings, utilitary tools, activities …. When two French chat they use many phrases no alien could understand . And all this without any slang .
    Concerning slangs, I don’t know any country where there are so many . The verlan is one, but in the 50s some guys published whole dictionaries slang/French . It is one word for another ( or several others ) . This slang was the gangsters’ one, of which words have now entered ordinary people’s slang . But just a few .
    There”s another systematic slang, the louchebem . Originally created by Paris central market butchers, it goes like this : take off the first consonant and add it at the end, replacethe first consonant by an “L” and add a working class traditional sound in the end . Butcher = boucher . Boucher gives louchébem .
    Another systematic one is the javanais . You add syllables like ja, la or va in the middle of certain words .
    Nowadays among uneducated youth, new slangs have appeared, including Arabic, Gypsy or US words .
    Strangers always mistake about the Académie Française, about the attitude of the French towards any form of authority, rule or law . People in France deeply want rules, they know rules are necessary to avoid a total exploitation of the masses by the sharks . And the ancestral personality, oriented towards reason and moderation tends towards rules . But the French have been the hardest group of tribes to unify and submit to a central power . Hence this attempt to unify them through language for instance . But people in France acknowledge the necessity of rules and are always able to not respect them . This goes from driving a car to anything . So the Académie ukases have never been a weight . The French act as they want, and speak as they want . They love the existence of the Académie but in real life they don’t give a shit, unless they take a special pleasure from it in some occasions .
    I think contraints develop the opposite . The Judeo-Christian demonization of sex have created sexual obsession ( hello America ), a thing you don’t meet in Pacific islands or pre-colonization Africa and America . The very brutal domination imposed by French nobles or bourgeois have generated several revolutions and the definitive lack of respect towards any government or police in French masses, and the Académie has engendered the widest liberty about language I ever met . And I speak several languages and have stayed among different people speaking their language with them, listening and noticing .

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