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Verlan – The New Slang

Do you know what Parlez-vous céfran means? It’s Parlez-vous français? (Do you speak French?) in verlan, a form of slang in which a word’s syllables are inverted. In verlan, français (French) becomes céfran. The term verlan is itself an instance of verlan, standing for l’envers ("backward" or “back to front”), as Lionel puts it in his lesson:

 

"Verlan", c'est "l'envers" à l'envers.

"Verlan" is "l'envers" [backward] reversed.

Caption 5, Lionel L - Le verlan

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Although verlan is widely used among young people today, the practice of reversing syllables goes back a long way (and is not exclusive to the French language). French Enlightenment writer François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, is said to have made up his pen name by reversing the syllables of his hometown of Airvault. More recently, singer/rapper/songwriter Stromae (né Paul Van Haver) built his stage name around the word maestro, which in verlan became Stromae! Verlan was even used as a coded language among prisoners during World War II. 

 

But it was not until the seventies and eighties that verlan really started to take off and become a form of expression for the disenfranchised in the poorer suburbs of Paris. It became part of the language of immigrants, namely second-generation French North Africans straddling two cultures, who called themselves beurs (arabes in verlan). (Incidentally, the term rebeu, a variation of beur, has become so mainstream that it is now entered in Le Petit Robert dictionary!)

 

The term beur (Arab), featured in the video below, is part of the catchphrase black, blanc, beur (black, white, Arab), which has become a symbol of racial diversity:

 

La Marianne, c'est le symbole de la République avant tout. Je vous dirais qu'elle soit noire, beur, ou blanche, c'est pareil.

Above all, Marianne is the symbol of the Republic. I'm telling you, whether she's black, Arab, or white, it's all the same.

Captions 16-17, Le Journal - Marianne

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By the same token, immigrants don’t want to abandon their roots and compromise their values to fit in. According to filmmaker Alain Etoundi, minorities are misrepresented in French movies, such as the comedy Les Kaïra, in which black characters are stereotyped as funny, harmless rogues. The title of the movie Les Kaïra is based on caillera, the verlan term for racaille (riffraff, scum):

 

Vous aimez valider des films de pseudo "Kaïra" ["caillera", verlan "racaille"]

You like to endorse pseudo-"Kaïra" films [riffraff]

Caption 26, Alain Etoundi - Allez tous vous faire enfilmer! - Part 1

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In addition to movies, music, especially hip-hop, helped verlan spread beyond the suburbs from the nineties onwards. In 2013, Congolese-born hip-hop artist Maître Gims made liberal use of verlan in his song "Bella":

 

Les gens du coin ne voulaient pas la "cher-lâ" [lâcher]

The local people would not leave her alone

Caption 54, Maître Gims - Bella

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Turning two-syllable words into verlan is quite straightforward. In the example above, Maître Gims just switches the syllables of lâcher (to let go/to leave alone) around to make cher-. But with one-syllable words, it’s a little trickier. For example, pieds (feet) becomes iep:

 

Rends-moi bête comme mes "iep" [pieds]

Make me stupid as my feet [thick as a brick]

Caption 59, Maître Gims - Bella

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And chien (dog) becomes iench:

 

Je suis l'ombre de ton "iench" [chien]

I am the shadow of your dog

Caption 61, Maître Gims - Bella

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Rapper Grand Corps Malade also uses verlan in his song "Roméo kiffe Juliette" (Romeo Likes Juliet):

 

Le père de Roméo est vénère [énervé], il a des soupçons

Romeo's father is irritated, he has suspicions

Caption 25, Grand Corps Malade - Roméo kiffe Juliette

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And in "Plan B", Grand Corps Malade refers to a girlfriend as a meuf:

 

Quand ta meuf c'est Kardashian et que tu rêves d'une vie planquée

When your chick is a Kardashian and you dream of a secluded life

Caption 21, Grand Corps Malade - Plan B

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The word femme (“woman” or “wife") becomes meuf in verlan, which can also mean “girlfriend” or, more slangily, "chick."

 

As singers have popularized the use of verlan, it's become part of everyday conversations among young people. In the video below, Elisa uses verlan in a conversation with her mother, whom she accuses of being relou (annoying): 

 

Bah oui! T'es... t'es super relou ["lourd" en verlan], on le sait hein!

Well yes! You're... you're really annoying, we know that, right?

Caption 8, Elisa et sa maman - Comment vas-tu?

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It's not just people who can be relou. Activities like housework can be as well:

 

Et très vite j'allais comprendre qu'il y avait plus relou que le ménage.

And very quickly I was going to understand that there were more frustrating things than housework.

Captions 73-74, Mère & Fille Tâches ménagères

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As you can see, verlan words pepper conversations and songs all across the French-speaking world. If you want to try your hand at verlan, just switch some syllables around, and don’t forget check out the videos featured in this Blaya (Yabla) lesson!

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