Should foreigners steer clear of France’s ‘backwards language’ Verlan?

Knowing how to speak Verlan - France's back-to-front language - doesn't mean you should do it as a foreigner, at least according to one French-language expert.

Should foreigners steer clear of France's 'backwards language' Verlan?
Photo: AFP

In case you didn’t know, France has a “back-to-front” slang language called Verlan that can bamboozle beginners and infuriate those who learned French many moons ago (and indeed older generations of native French speakers).

In short, the 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.
Although originally most words that have a reversed or Verlan version were linked with sex or drugs in order to keep them secret, the number of Verlan words has boomed in recent years. And they are now so common place that sometimes you will forget they are not actually real French words.

But, as a foreigner, knowing how to use Verlan and knowing when to use it are two very different things. 

Indeed, should a foreigner even bother using it or do we all just sound ridiculous? As non-native French speakers ourselves, we turned to French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, the founder of the language site French Today, to ask for help. 

“I’m 45, and I never use Verlan,” she tells The Local. “So unless you are under 30, stay away from it.”

And even if you're under-30 Chevalier-Karfis warns against trying your hand at Verlan, because you might just get it wrong.

“You'll look silly,” she warns.

Essentially she says it's like “swearing” in another language. While it might sound like fun to do it, it just never sounds right and really should be left to the locals. (Think of about when French people use the F-word too much.)

“Verlan is still a French thing, some young people use it but not every young French person does. It's a question of social class, location, age, context, and personal choice,” Chevalier-Karfis adds.

“Personally,  I don't use “yo bro” in English, and it would be totally out of place coming out of my mouth,” she says.

“So careful with Verlan, swearing, interjections which may be common in movies or songs, but are not part of the mainstream French language, and will fly in a certain crowd, but may be a big faux-pas when used in the wrong context. 

However if you are under 30, or if you’re just interested in learning, Chevalier-Karfis said there are a few words that are so common that you can get away with using them – in the right crowd. 

These include (with translations below): cimer, tromé, ouf, reum, meuf, teuf, renoi, feuj, beur, keuf, vénèr, and chelou. Indeed some of these have made the French dictionary.

In order, these mean: merci (thanks), métro (as in the subway), fou (crazy), mère (mother), femme (girlfriend or wife), fête (party), noire (black), juif (Jewish), arab (Arab), énérvé (irritated), and louche (strange or shady). And if you think Verlan is just a passing fad, then think again, says the French teacher. 

And Chevalier-Karfis warns that Verlan is here to stay, so who knows, in future maybe it will more commonplace among all French generations and classes.

“It's been part of the French culture for a long time and I don't think it's going to die out,” she says.

“Sometimes, a Verlan expression comes out in a movie, becomes a big hit, and then enters the mainstream vocabulary and everybody uses it for a while. Then it passes, until the next one.”

But while foreigners should perhaps stay away from using Verlan words when we speak, it's certainly advisable to swot up on them all, so that next time you are in the company of a young trendy student in Paris, you'll know what they are talking about.


Verlan: France's backwards language you need to learn

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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.