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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Verlan: France’s backwards language you need to learn

While France's secret "back-to-front" slang language may bamboozle the elderly (and the language learners), it's here to stay so you better get used to it, writes Oliver Gee.

There's a fantastic language phenomenon in France called “Verlan” that's certain to have sent many French learners scrambling for dictionaries over the years. 
 
The slang language essentially sees the sounds of a word's syllables pronounced back-to-front. In fact, the word “verlan” itself is an example of Verlan, as it's the French word “L'envers” (reverse) in reverse.
 
The phenomenon, which some suggest took off after World World Two, is incredibly popular with younger people.
 
But it doesn't just work on any old word – it's something that has to be learned from a select few examples.
 
Although originally most words were linked with sex or drugs in order to keep them secret, the number of Verlan words has boomed in recent years.
 
For example, the word bizarre turns into “zarbi” (yes, it's spelled differently too), the word for woman (femme) becomes “meuf” and the word for crazy (fou) becomes “ouf”. 
 
And did you know that the name of the most popular French-language singer right now – Stromae – is a Verlan form of the word maestro? The language is hugely popular in music, especially French rap, where the sounds of the words are often just as important as the meaning. 
 
Belgian performer Stromae. Photo: AFP
 
If you've never heard of Verlan before, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of underground code, but the examples above are such mainstays in the French language that most French people under the age of 40 wouldn't even think twice about using them. 
 
Other common examples are “chelou” for “louche” (to mean a strange, bizarre or shady), “laisse béton” for “laisse tomber” (or “let it go”), and “chanmé” meaning great, wicked or cool, which is taken from “méchant”, which means bad, or wicked.
 
French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, who runs the language learning website French Today, says that Verlan is known for making occasional comebacks, the last major one of which was around 10 to 15 years ago.  
 
“Each time it makes a comeback, some 'newer' slang expressions stick in everybody's vocabulary, when other words are only 'in' for a couple of years and then become stupid very fast,” she told The Local. 
 
She pointed out that “laisse béton” – which is also the name of a hit French song from the seventies – is no longer considered to be a “fashionable” phrase, rather it's just a part of the French vocabulary. 
 
But it's not always simple. The last time Verlan did the rounds, she said, it became so over-prevalent that it could be tricky to keep up. 
 
For example, she said, a sentence like “Dammit, my jacket was stolen in the subway!” – which should be “Fait chier, on m'a fauché mon blouson dans le métro!” – suddenly became “Fait ièche – on m'a fécho mon zomblou dans l'tromé!”
 
The Paris Métro… or the Tromé de Ripa? Photo: Simon/Flickr
 
While examples like this are (thankfully) relegated to the past, the spike in Verlan brought about a bunch of words that became part of everyday slang, such as “portnawoiq” (slang for “n'importe quoi” – nonsense), “teuf” for “fête” (party), “t'es relou” (for “lourd” – you're a pain).
 
Opinion on Verlan is divided, especially among language learners. While some may complain about this “child-like code language”, others like French language expert Laura K. Lawless count themselves among the fans. 
 
“I think Verlan is great, it's a way of playing with the language that is so simple, and yet produces a word that is so different that it's incomprehensible at first sound,” the Francophile, who created LawlessFrench.com, told The Local.  
 
Photo: RedBat/Flickr
 
She suggested that Verlan looked likely to hang around too, not least because some words become so mainstream that they get “switched” for a second time
 
For example, she pointed out that femme (woman) first changed to “meuf”, then became so common that it got “re-Verlaned” to become “feumeu”. The word for Arab (arabe) saw a similar journey, initially switching to the now hugely popular word “beur” before more recently being re-dubbed to “rebeu”. 
 
Une femme… or should that be a meuf? Photo: Daniel X. O'Neil/Flickr
 
While the words that have entered common parlance seem here for good, the language isn't developing much (with the exceptions of a few re-Verlaned words). Perhaps it's because all the best words have been created already, coupled with the fact that the language is seen more as something to learn than to invent.  
 
In fact, both the language experts agreed that Verlan wasn't influencing today's slang to the same extent as it did in the past. Nowadays, youths are preferring to use text speak, English words, and even Arabic-influenced words when they want to use slang. 
 
But don't think this means you shouldn't learn the basics if you want to understand the French. 
 
After all, every single French person under the age of 40 who The Local spoke to for this story agreed that Verlan was an integral part of everyday French life. 
 
So with this in mind, we advise you to memorize the examples above, if for no other reason that to impress your French friends.
 
Enjoy. Or should that be joyen?
 

Member comments

  1. The Local (Callo? Laclo?) piece on Verlan really needs a downloadable version that can be printed out and carried around for quick reference. I am ashamed to say that I have lived in France and Suisse Romande for well over 30 years without ever having knowingly come across it. But if it is that widespread, it could explain why I sometimes scarcely comprehend a word in conversations going on around me.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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