Opinion: ‘The French don’t like change but slang can keep the language alive’

The French are often accused of being reactionary when it comes to new words entering their sacred language but the author of a new book on the subject tells The Local that slang is a real chance to keep French alive.

Opinion: 'The French don't like change but slang can keep the language alive'
Photo: Rawpixel//Depositphotos
When it comes to their language, the French are famous for being protectionist and resistant to change. 
After all, when the guardians of the French language the Academie Francaise — with their usual hyperbole — said that the language was in 'mortal danger' in 2017, because of so-called “inclusive writing” it made headlines not just in France but internationally
But while people around the world draw their impressions of the French and their attitudes towards their own language from the dramatic declarations of the Academie, there is one area of French this famous institution has no control over and perhaps don't even really understand. 
Argot — the French word for slang — the antithesis of the puritanism represented by the Academie Francaise, “moves quickly and is part of France's subculture”, Benjamin Valliet (see image below), a French author who has written a book on contemporary French slang called “Lexique ta mere” tells The Local. 
“The French tend to be reactionary and don't like change. Of course, this is a stereotype — after all we did have a Revolution — but there is some truth to it,” he says. 
“Some people feel bothered by slang and it unsettles the language purists who would prefer French to be frozen in time.” 
The exact reason for this reluctance to let the language evolve naturally is hard to pinpoint, he says, adding that it could be down to a number of factors. 
“It's partly due to a lack of understanding,” he says, adding the aversion could perhaps be “partly because argot is usually spoken by young people and it reminds older people that they're ageing and don't understand the words being spoken by the younger generation”.
Valliet went on to say that in the minds of many French people, slang is linked to rap and therefore gangsters, which could make them judge it more harshly. 
Then, he says, there are some who believe that everyone should live like they do. 
Valliet argues that this resistance means that French changes far less than other languages. 

A lot of French slang, Valliet explains, is made up by young people who come from deprived areas — the “dominated” in society — as a way of separating themselves from those they consider to be the “dominant” classes. 

Argot can be like a foreign language, stealing elements from English and, of course, Arabic, Valliet explains. 

French slang: The everyday words they don't teach you at  school

But despite the underground nature of French slang, it's likely many learners of the language are familiar with some of the more common argot words which have made the leap into normal conversation in France. 
If you live here or even if you've visited, you'll probably have heard the word “meuf” which is Verlan — France's secret “back-to-front” slang — for “femme” (woman). 
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. 
And some slang even makes it into the country's main dictionaries.  
“Slang is starting to become more mainstream which I think is a shame,” Valliet said although he added that with argot changing so quickly, words that had real slang credentials just months ago quickly become outdated. 
For example, “boloss”, a slang term to mean someone who is outdated or a bit of a moron, is now so outdated itself so anyone using it would be considered a “boloss” themselves, Valliet says. 
So for all the language learners out there, is it worth getting up-to-date with French slang?
“Not for everyday comprehension,” says Valliet. “But if you're around teenagers a lot it will be very useful.”
So anyone considering teaching in French schools, might want to brush up on their argot before walking into a classroom.
Here are five French words to get you started
This is a word taken from English to mean someone who is inexperienced in a particular sphere or activity, especially when it comes to computer games.
This is a slang term for housing estate or working-class area. 
j'ai le mort (I'm dead)
This would be used by someone to mean that they are very angry. 
daron/daronne – mum/dad
un bambi – a loser

Verlan: France's backwards language you need to learn

Photo: Basilemorin/WikiCommons


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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.


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


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 


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 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.