Dialects, Slang

Le Verlan: Speaking Backwards in French

If you are learning French you might’ve heard of Verlan. The elusive and cryptic version of French, often referred to as speaking backwards in French. But what is Verlan?

Verlan is basically a type of slang most commonly used in ‘les banlieues’ by young people.

It’s often regarded as an identity marker, as it is used by second generation immigrants who despite being French, do not feel French, but also do not feel the same nationality as their parents. Therefore, they feel the need to form their own nationality, a mixture of French and their own, which is why the language of Verlan contains a lot of Arabic words and borrowings from other languages.

Verlan is formed by inverting the syllables in a French word, for instance bonjour is jourbon in Verlan. Hence it is referred to as speaking French backwards.

Therefore, many Verlan words appear to be quite different from their French counterparts, due to this, many people refer to Verlan as a cryptic language, used by people who want to keep their conversation a secret from others.

Some Verlan words and expressions include:

Zarbi=bizarre

Meuf= femme

Ouf= fou

Zyva= vas-y

Teuf= fête

Chelou= louche

It can be found in a variety of films, rap music and daily conversation. Films that contain Verlan include:  Les Keufs by Josiane Balasko, 1987; Les Ripoux by Claude Zidi, 1983; La Haine in 1995 and more recently, L’esquive, Kechiche, 2004 and Ch’tis in 2008.

Rap songs containing Verlan include: IAM; 113; Prodige Namor; Maitre Gims; Kerredine Soltani and Keblack.

Is it popular?

Verlan first hit the scenes in the 80’s and was incredibly popular. Some people argue that Verlan is not quite as popular nowadays, despite there is evidence of Verlan evolving into an intrinsic part of the French language.

For instance, many original Verlan words have become too mainstream, so have been reverlanised to maintain their cryptic nature, such as: beur (arabe) which is now rebeu. Furthermore, now we see the emergence of 3 distinct types of Verlan, the original Verlan used by the working class living in the banlieues; Verlan used by young, urban professionals who use it to show solidarity with migrant communities in the area; and lastly the Verlan used by teenagers to avoid authority figures and keep their conversations secret.

In conclusion, Verlan is a type of slang which is predominantly used by younger people, and like all slang it is constantly evolving. But if you’re ever in France, in the big cities, and you hear something that sounds French but not quite French you are probably listening to Verlan.

 

 

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3 Comments

  • Reply udi September 21, 2017 at 3:20 am

    there a group whose name came from verlan. Gotan project.

    what’s the meaning of verlan?

    • Reply Dima September 30, 2017 at 11:26 pm

      Udi, “the term itself is derived from the word l’envers the syllables of which are reversed to create vers-l’en which in turn becomes verlan”

  • Reply Adrien September 29, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    *For the previous comment:

    Gotan = Tango
    Verlan = L’envers (backwards)

    Being French, I can say that verlan is very much part of the language and many more people understand it (if not, use it) well outside of “les banlieues”.

    You mention in the article that since it comes from “banlieues”, it contains lots of arabic words.
    2 points:
    – Is it not prejudicial to assume banlieues=arabs? Arabs make it in life too and can live in richer parts of cities. And what about French, Turks, Indians, Chinese, people from Congo, Cameroon and many other countries who are represented in “banlieues”?
    – There isn’t a single arabic word in the examples you have given… Could you give some?

    Cimer (that’s how arabs say “merci” in banlieues)

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