Verlan is the French term used to describe the innovative form of slang which inverts the syllables of words to create a distorted version of the original. The word verlan is an example of the process. L'envers, meaning back to front or inside out has been turned on its head, to create verslens. For ease of spelling, this odd-looking word has become verlan.

A brief history:

Much like English Backslang, French verlan came into existence because the criminal underworld needed to disguise what they were saying. It dates back to the time of Voltaire, whose pen name is a verlanized version of the town where he was born, Airvault. (Thanks to LeoDV for that.) The main growth period for this imaginative type of slang was from the 1930s to the 1970s. The phenomenon is largely Parisian in origin. More specifically, it has its roots in the banlieue, the largely deprived areas on the outskirts of the city. Until the 1970s, few people outside of the working class understood verlan. The fact that it is now widely accepted as a common form of slang is due to artists who brought it out of its lowly status and into the national arena. Renaud's 1977 hit single Laisse Béton uses verlan in its title (Laisse tomber means leave it or drop it).

The next great leap forwards came in the early 1990s. French rappers began writing politically-aware lyrics packed full of verlan. A new generation of that same disaffected suburban youth picked up on verlan as something which belonged to them. Verlan enabled them at once to mark themselves as different from mainstream French society, and served as a unifying tool within their own sub-culture. As well as resurrecting the existing verlan words, groups such as Les Sages Poètes de la Rue set about coining neologisms which were more appropriate to the 1990s. Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 film La Haine also helped to spread the new wave of verlan. His adolescent characters frequently have fun with language by playing with verlan.

Nowadays, verlan has become so common-place that everyone's gran understands the key inverted phrases. It is no longer seen as rough to use verlan, and the sons and daughters of well-to-do French families are peppering their sentences with this colourful form of argot.

Some examples of verlan in action:

  • aps from: pas, meaning not. eg. j'sais aps = I dunno.
  • un beur from: Arabe, meaning Arab.
  • chébran from: branché, meaning cool, on the scene.
  • chelou from: louche, meaning shady, suspicious.
  • cimer from: merci, meaning thanks.
  • fait ièche from: fait chier, meaning pain in the arse.
  • jourbon from: bonjour, meaning hello. Old-fashioned sounding nowadays. (Thanks, LeoDV)
  • un keuf from: flic, meaning cop, pig.
  • un keum from: mec, meaning bloke, guy.
  • un keus from: sac, meaning bag.
  • une meuf from: femme, meaning woman, girlfriend. Can be a bit nasty, this one - bordering on "bitch". (Cheers again, Leo)
  • ouf from: fou, meaning crazy, bonkers.
  • quebri from: briquet, meaning lighter.
  • rabza from: arabe, meaning Arab.
  • relou from: lourd, meaning a pain in the arse/tiresome (lit. heavy).
  • reubeu from: arabe, meaning Arab.
  • ripou from: pourri, meaning, literally, rotten. Hazelnut tells me this is used to describe a bent cop.
  • teuf from: fête, meaning party.
  • trômé from: métro, meaning metro/tube/underground/subway..
  • yeuf from: feuille, meaning cigarette paper.
  • la ziqmu from: musique, meaning music. Often shortened to la ziq.
  • zarbi from: bizarre, meaning weird.

How exactly are these strange words formed?

You may have noticed that there is more than just a simple inversion taking place in a lot of these neologisms. Quite often, the vowel sounds are often changed too. The main reason for this is to ease pronunciation. There are three possibilities when putting a word into verlan.

1. Divide the word into the syllables which make it up. Then switch these parts around, so that the first is last, and the last is first. Quite straightforward, this method. Eg. Laisse béton, as we have seen above, comes from Laisse tomber. The spelling has changed, but this is unimportant as the only thing we are interested in is the sound. Remember, verlan is almost exclusively a spoken form of slang.

2. Some verlan words have mysteriously acquired an extra vowel. Again, this happens so that words are pronouncable. Eg. fepro comes from prof, meaning teacher. The extra e is present because the word fpro is a bit of a tongue-twister.

3. With words such as meuf, the internal vowel sound has been altered somewhat. Theories as to why this has happened vary. The only one which seems convincing to me is that the addition of an e simply makes the verlan word sound better.

Similar types of word-play in French:

Javanais, while not nearly as varied or complex as verlan, can still be fun. It is thought to have originated in French Indochina. The rule is that you insert either av, va, or ag after a consonant in a word. Javeudavi, then, comes from jeudi, meaning Thursday.

Largonji probably has its origins in Indochina also. Slang words are formed by replacing the first letter of the word with an L, while the original first letter is kicked further down the word, to the beginning of an invented suffix. These new, tacked-on endings include , -ès, -ic, -uche, or just about whatever you fancy that begins with a vowel and contains only one syllable. It's fun, I promise!

Loucherbem has its own writeup by thbz at Loucherbem.

Sources:
my year in France spent with the youth of Evreux. Special thanks to Enguerran Harre and LeoDV.
A tutorial by Paul Hedley of Magdalen College, Oxford
Dictionary of French Slang by Henry Strutz
Le Français dans tous les sens by Henriette Walter
www.sunderland.ac.uk
http://french.about.com
http://fr.wikipedia.org
www.well.ac.uk
Cheers to Hazelnut finding a couple I missed (18/10/05)

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