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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The 10 most common French words you won’t learn in school

Once you've mastered the basics of French you will discover a whole subsection of words and phrases that definitely won't be in your textbooks. French writer Olivia Sorrel Dejerine gives us a run-down on verlan.

The 10 most common French words you won't learn in school
Learning French goes further than what you read in school textbooks. Photo: AFP

If you’ve been living in France for a while or have been hanging out with some French friends, there are chances you may have heard some words of Verlan – France’s “back-to-front” slang language.

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.

Verlan has existed since the 17th century, according to Jean-Paul Colin, author of the Dictionnaire de l’argot français et de ses origines, and Verlan words are now an essential part of the French vocabulary (at least with the younger generations).

They have become so common that some can be found in the dictionary such as meuf – femme – woman, keuf – flic – policeman or beur – arabe – used to describe young people from North African origin who were born in France to immigrant parents.

Listening to conversations is a great way of hearing Verlan. Photo: AFP

In fact it’s so solidly established in daily French life, that the really cool kids are using words coming from the language of different communities living in France such as Arabic, Bambara (used in Mali) or Creole, according to Le Parisien.

Rappers, known to be ambassadors of slang, use them in their songs and make them popular. Mister You or PNL are among the many acclaimed artists who use these new words in their lyrics. 

A lot of them can be found in the Dictionnaire de la zone by Abdelkarim Tengour who made a list of more than hundreds of expressions coming from les banlieues (the suburbs).

And if you really want to be up to date on the latest expressions of slang, you can take a look at the website blazz.  

Younger generations use thousands of expressions the older don’t have a clue about. Photo: AFP

But for now, you can stick to Verlan and some of its most common words you can use without sounding like a tourist and that anyone (apart from maybe the very elderly and stuffy) will understand:

Cimer : merci (thank you) – Tu peux me passer le sel? Cimer – Can you hand me the salt? Thanks.

Ouf: Fou (crazy) – C’est ouf ! – That’s crazy!

Chelou: louche (weird) – Cette situation est trop chelou ! – This situation is super weird!

Véner : énervé (angry) – ça me véner de ouf ! – That annoys me a lot!

Chanmé : méchant (nasty) – Cette soirée est chanmée ! – That party is awesome!

Teuf : fête (party) – J’ai trop hâte de faire la teuf ! – I can’t wait to party!

Relou : lourd (unbearable) – Ma mère est trop relou aujourd’hui. – My mother is really getting on my nerves today.

Pécho : choper (to catch but it is also means to kiss) – Tu l’as pécho? – Did you kiss him?

Teubé: bête (stupid) – T’es trop teubé. – You’re so stupid.

Laisse béton : laisse tomber (don’t bother) – Laisse béton on a perdu trop de temps ! – Don’t bother we’ve lost too much time!

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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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