Verlan

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Verlan
Informal practice commonly found in France
France map.png
Map of France, where Verlan commonly takes place.
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Flag of France.
Entry written by Rebecca Stewart.
Rebecca Stewart is affiliated to University College London.

Original text by Rebecca Stewart

Verlan is a form of French slang featuring the inversion of syllables to create new words and was originally used by the first generation of children born in France to North African immigrants as an in-group or secret language. Its proliferation in the housing projects in the outer suburbs of Paris became an exhaustive area of study in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bachmann and Basier 1984[1]; Méla 1991[2]). Verlan quickly gained notoriety as a method of disguising criminal activity in the banlieues (city outskirts) from the police. These days, Verlan appears to be used much less maliciously and by a wider social spectrum, although some of the original prejudices against its use still remain.

In Europe in particular there is a plethora of slang lexicons, such as Rotwelsch in German, furbesco in Italian and of course argot in French (Burke and Porter 1995[3]). It would appear that Verlan has its roots in the French slang of argot, which François-Geiger (1991[4]) splits into two main categories; firstly, its original intended use was as a cryptolect by various gangs in nineteenth century France as a means of concealing criminal activity; and secondly, the parlers branchés (this could be translated as ‘trendy speech’) was employed within different areas of culture as a means of both identification and to disguise meaning. In some ways, Verlan can be viewed as a revival of the traditional functions of argot; a fundamentally oral phenomenon, it is particularly prevalent in large urban conurbations and in some cases has similar functions, the most important of which is as a means of masking certain topics of conversation from outsiders (ibid). With its use of syllabic inversion, Verlan falls into the category of ‘reversal ludlings’ (Bagemihl 2005[5]), present in Europe in the forms of Pig Latin (Treiman 1989[6]) and some aspects of Cant or Shelta (Kirk and Ò Baoill 2002[7]). However, it is perhaps the Balkan slang Šatrovački which is the most similar to Verlan, given its popularity amongst young immigrant populations, its function of disguising criminal activity, and the choice of words it incorporates into its lexicon, which tend to be drug- or crime-based (Rizzolo 2004[8]; Rìos 2009[9]). Rizzolo gives as examples the Serbo-Croat words džok, meaning ‘joint’, which becomes kədžo, and nož (‘knife’) which turns into žəno (2004:276-7[10]).

In Chomskyan terms, Verlan is a not a grammatical practice but a social one (Azra & Cheneau 1994[11]), regardless of the morphological processes a word must undergo to become verlanised. In Peters' words, ‘...Verlan serves primarily as an identity marker, not as a semantic addition to a sentence’ (2007:3[12]). Spoken as a means of rebellion against the purity of the French language, which is more strictly regulated than most by the Académie Française, it is often seen as a means of association and solidarity with a very particular social group. In its early incarnations, the offspring of immigrants from former French colonies and Muslim countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Turkey who as first-generation French citizens struggled to fit in with both their parents' and French culture, employed Verlan (itself an inversion of the word l'envers, literally ‘back to front’) as a way of self-identification. This section of society was, and still is, disproportionately socially excluded, often confined to high-rise developments on the outskirts of large cities such as Paris and Marseilles. As a result they created for themselves a kind of underground society within which Verlan was the primary means of excluding the uninitiated.

Verlan is not only a means of inclusion, but as with many other in-group languages, a way to ‘scramble’ a word or message to hide criminal or dubious activity, for example teshi from le shit (a French slang term for cannabis) and keuf for flic, a rather derogatory name for a police officer (Méla 1991[13]). It is also extremely prevalent in the lexical fields of sex and relationships, the body, ethnicity, drugs and violence. This can be accredited to the fact that a Verlan term may be ‘softer’, less brash, and without the connotations and taboos of the original word; take the very common beur used in place of arabe, or caillera, the inversion of racaille, a word which president Nicolas Sarkozy used in 2005, akin to the English word ‘scum’, to describe delinquent members of society.

These days, many French people use some degree of Verlan regardless of race, age, gender or social class (Méla 1997[14]). As would be expected, different varieties of Verlan have developed over time, almost certainly from diatopic (from experience, Lyonnais Verlan is quite different to the Parisian variety) and diastratic points of view. As has been noted ‘...it can (...) distinguish yuppies from street kids’ (Peters 2007:9[15]). Lefkowitz (1991[16]) claims that some members of the bourgeoisie may try to show empathy or awareness of social problems by using Verlan. Indeed even at Presidential levels there is evidence of deliberately using Verlan to be current. As Azra and Cheneau report:

‘On se souviendra de Mitterand (François, the former French president) répondant à un journaliste lui demandant ce que signifie chébran; "Ça veut dire branché...”’ (‘We remember Mitterand responding to a journalist who had asked him what chébran meant; ‘It means trendy...’)(1994:149[17])

One of the most telling indicators that Verlan is not just a passing fad has been its diffusion across French media. A mode of speech that was once only heard on news reports from the Parisian banlieues is now omnipresent in France's film and music industry. Isabelle Marc Martínez’s book, Le rap français. Esthétique et poétique des textes, 1990-1995 gives an in-depth account of the use of Verlan in popular music, and specifically rap music, which in France tends to be produced and listened to by the maghrébin population (2008[18]). It would appear that when Verlan is used in rap music, it is not used as cryptically, but instead allows the listener to feel part of the movement as well as emphasising the message of the music. As Marc-Martìnez puts it:

[Verlan] n'a pas pour fonction de brouiller le message, mais, au contraire, de l'intensifier par l'accumulation de synonymes.’ (‘[Verlan] does not seek to scramble the message; but rather to intensify it through the accumulation of synonyms.’) (2008:271[19])

However, it is also important to consider the roots of French hip-hop. Mitchell (2000[20]) maintains that rappers and hip-hop artists have always looked to their ethnic backgrounds for inspiration, and have used this to forge a strong identity; although he does not explicitly mention Verlan, it can clearly be considered an important feature of this identity.

Hip-hop music has also created for itself a sub-lexicon of Verlan, in which the most important words within the realm of rap music are almost better known in this form (Marc-Martìnez 2008[21]); examples include the word rappeur itself, verlanised into peura, and the name of the well-known artist MC Solaar, also known as Laarso. Unlike the previously discussed ‘common’ verlanisations of slang words, the rapper Ministère A.M.E.R. has branched out into inverting everyday words (i.e., those not considered to be argotique or slang) namely maneci (cinéma) and naisco (connais) (2008:271[22]), thus giving strength to the argument that Verlan is no longer restricted to a cryptic form of usage.

The cultural importance of verlan is highlighted in the 1995 film La Haine, in which the director Matthieu Kassowitz draws on French society's understanding of the slang. The film's events take place against the backdrop of a Parisian council estate, focusing on the frustrations of residents of la zone (the ‘slum belt’). Kassowitz appears to have made it as ‘viewer-friendly’ as possible whilst also conveying the message that the characters' speech is different from that of the more bourgeois society that they encounter in central Paris. Peters sums this up well:

‘The characters speak Verlan only amongst themselves, never to adults inside or outside the banlieue [suburbs]...they use Verlan for drug vocabulary and employ many of the better-known terms: keuf, from flic, (meaning cop or pig)... téci, from cité, (ghetto)’ (2007: 15[23])

Furthermore, although the characters never use more than a few words of Verlan at a time (presumably to facilitate the comprehension of the viewer), what is considered to be the most important word in the sentence is usually the one that is verlanised, giving that word some kind of emphatic quality (Black and Sloutsky 2010[24]).

Notes

  1. Bachmann, C. and Basier, L. 1984. ‘Le verlan: argot d'école ou langue des Keums?’ Mots, 8(1): 169-187.
  2. Méla, V. 1991. Le verlan ou le langage du miroir. Langages, 101: 73-94.
  3. Burke, P. and Porter, R. (eds.). (1995). Languages and jargons: contributions to a social history of language. Polity Press.
  4. François-Geiger, D. 1991.‘Panorama des argots contemporains’, Langue française, 90: 5-9.
  5. Bagemihl, B. 1995. ‘Language games and related areas’, in John A. Goldsmith (ed.), The handbook of phonological theory, Oxford: Blackwell: 697-712.
  6. Treiman, R.1989. ‘The internal structure of the syllable’, In Linguistic structure in language processing Springer Netherlands: 27-52.
  7. Kirk, J. M. and Ó Baoill, D.P. (eds.), 2002. Travellers and their Language (Vol. 4). Cló Ollscoil na Banríona.
  8. Rizzolo, O. 2004. Šatrovački: la construction et l’exploitation d’un corpus de verlan serbo-croate. Corpus, (3).
  9. Ríos, J. V. 2009. Linguistique et sociolinguistique du verlan à travers le monde. Analecta Malacitana, (26):197-214.
  10. Rizzolo, O. 2004. Šatrovački: la construction et l’exploitation d’un corpus de verlan serbo-croate. Corpus, (3).
  11. Azra, J. L. and Cheneau, V. 1994. ‘Jeux de langage et théorie phonologique. Verlan et structure syllabique du français’, Journal of French language studies, 4(2): 147-170.
  12. Peters, N. 2007. C'est pas blesipo: Variations of Verlan. BA dissertation. Swarthmore College.
  13. Méla, V. 1991. Le verlan ou le langage du miroir. Langages, 101: 73-94.
  14. Méla, V. 1997. VERLAN 2000. Langue française, 16-34.
  15. Peters, N. 2007. C'est pas blesipo: Variations of Verlan. BA dissertation. Swarthmore College.
  16. Lefkowitz, N. 1991. Talking backwards, looking forwards: The French language game verlan (Vol. 3). Gunter Narr Verlag.
  17. Azra, J. L. and Cheneau, V. 1994. ‘Jeux de langage et théorie phonologique. Verlan et structure syllabique du français’, Journal of French language studies, 4(2): 147-170.
  18. Martínez, I. M. 2008. Le rap français: esthétique et poétique des textes (1990-1995) (Vol. 9). Peter Lang.
  19. Martínez, I. M. 2008. Le rap français: esthétique et poétique des textes (1990-1995) (Vol. 9). Peter Lang.
  20. Mitchell, T. 2000. ‘Doin’ damage in my native language: The use of “resistance vernaculars” in hip hop in France, Italy, and Aotearoa/New Zealand’, Popular Music & Society, 24 (3): 41-54.
  21. Martínez, I. M. 2008. Le rap français: esthétique et poétique des textes (1990-1995) (Vol. 9). Peter Lang.
  22. Martínez, I. M. 2008. Le rap français: esthétique et poétique des textes (1990-1995) (Vol. 9). Peter Lang.
  23. Peters, N. 2007. C'est pas blesipo: Variations of Verlan. BA dissertation. Swarthmore College.
  24. Black, C. and Sloutsky, L. 2010. Évolution du verlan, marqueur social et identitaire, dans les films: La Haine (1995) et L’Esquive (2004). Synergies Canada, (2).