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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
Relou – lourd – lit. heavy but can mean annoying or difficult
Chammé – mechant – mean
Have you ever heard verlan spoken before? If so, what words would you add to the list above?