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Have You Ever Spoken French…in Reverse? Posted by on Dec 8, 2014 in Grammar, Vocabulary

Back when I was just becoming familiar with the language, I would sometimes go out with Parisian friends to a bar or brasserie and listen while they spoke amongst themselves. I’d be feeling somewhat proud about the advances I’d taken in French and knew that I could have a pretty comprehensive conversation. But, listening to this group of Parisians speak, I’d focus on everything they said…and understand absolutely nothing. It made me feel really self-conscious about my French skills and, frankly, sometimes made me want to sit in the corner of the bar and cry into my glass of red wine.

Once, feeling pretty dejected, I brought it up to Fadi, the guy I was dating at the time who later became my husband. I told him: “I just don’t get it. I work in an office with all French workers and understand almost everything they say. And then I go out to a bar with a group of younger French friends and can’t understand a word of it. It makes no sense.”

He looked at me knowingly, like he had already diagnosed the problem. “Have you ever heard of verlan?” he asked me. I hadn’t.

“That’s why,” he said. “They’re speaking in verlan. They’re basically speaking in reverse.”

Speaking in reverse…that was a new concept for me. But, with Fadi and his friends’ help, I began to understand the different registers that French people speak in. Including this strange French slang called verlan.

When I say “registers” of the language, I mean that there are different varieties of a formal language that speakers may use depending on what setting they find themselves in. At work, you’d be more likely to speak in grammatically correct English, without resorting as much to slang or even some mild cursing, right? Well, it’s the same in French. At work, I was hearing pretty standard French amongst older, professional colleagues. At the bar, I was hearing French slang, or verlan, which is in pretty common use among the younger generation in France, especially in and around Paris.

So what exactly is verlan? It developed in the Parisian banlieues, or suburbs, as a form of social protest. In these poorer areas, younger people wanted to speak without being comprehensible to the French police or other authority figures. Ils commençaient à parler en français à l’envers – they began to speak in French in reverse – et le verlan fut né – and verlan was born.

It works like this: you break up standard French words – like “l’envers” – into their pronounced syllables – in this case, “lan-ver” – and then switch their order. Thus, “l’envers” becomes verlan.

It’s not always quite so easy to come up with the verlanized word, however. If there’s interest, I could focus a later blog post on the more in-depth “rules” of verlan. For now, it’s important to stress two major points: Verlan is not a written or formal register of French, which means you shouldn’t use it for written communication or in any formal setting. And, because it occupies an oral register of French, you inverse the syllables as they are pronounced and not necessarily the way the word is spelled.

Because verlan is so commonplace today, some vernalized words are inversed doubly. Thus the word for “Arab” – “arabe” – became “beur” in verlan and then was reversed one more time to form the doubly verlanized word “rebeu”.

It’s confusing, I know. But it’s also essential if you want to understand the way French is spoken currently, especially by the younger generation. This slang is also important to know if you want to understand current French pop culture in movies and music, because verlan is widely used there as well.

Here’s a list of some widely used words in verlan, with their standard French and English translation:

Teubê – bête – stupid

Meuf – femme – woman

Keum – mec – guy

Teuf’ – fête – party

Keuf – flic – police

Reloulourd – lit. heavy but can mean annoying or difficult

Chammémechant – mean

Have you ever heard verlan spoken before? If so, what words would you add to the list above?

 

 

 

 

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About the Author:Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at http://www.imaginistwriter.com. A la prochaine!


Comments:

  1. Neeraj Kumar:

    Maybe you’d be surprised to hear that this kind of speaking is very much a part of the vocabulary of the teenagers in many places, atleast I know it is so in India and neighboring countries (of course in the native languages not French!).

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Neeraj Kumar I didn’t know that, Neeraj! That’s very interesting. I wonder if these forms of argot also developed as a political youth movement in order to disguise speech.

  2. Sharon:

    I have never heard about this before. It’s like pig-latin in English. I imagine I would just end up memorising the words, rather than figuring out how to verlanise them (since I am such a beginner).

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Sharon Yup, that’s the easier way, Sharon. Believe it or not, there are some confusing rules for “verlanizing” words…it almost works like it’s own language!

  3. Erica:

    The first thing that popped in my head while reading this was the artist, Stomae (maestro). 😉

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Erica Yes! Last Spring I had the chance to see Stromae in New York — it was an amazing concert!

  4. jonathan:

    Bonjour tout le monde!
    The first verlan word that i’ve ever heard was chelou (louche). I’ve been speaking french for about 6 years and about a few months ago was when I first heard of verlan. It’s a pretty neat concept but sometimes I forget that its not formal and I say verlan words in class 🙁

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @jonathan Chelou is definitely very common. It’s difficult to understand the registers of expressions and words at first because you don’t have a reference point. For me, I often heard “un truc de ouf” and had to teach myself not to use it in certain circumstances!

  5. Sophie James:

    I have indeed heard of verlan before. Words like meuf, cimer… but there is one I still dont understand the meaning of, askip. Can someone tell me?

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Sophie James It seems like it means “il parait que…” I’d never heard of that one before!

  6. Thaleis:

    Askip sound more like a shorting of “à c’qui parait” already short way to say “A ce qu’il parait…”
    It would be a part of argot (slang) but not necessary verlan.