Developed in the Parisian underworld in the 1960s, Verlan is arguably an equivalent of Cockney rhyming slang, but instead of introducing new words that rhyme, it flips the syllables. In context, certain words are just about work-outable, but others are near-impossible tests of your philological knowledge and pattern spotting! The thing to remember is that the process has everything to do with the sound of the word, not the spelling.
The word ‘verlan’ itself is an example of the process:
‘Back-to-front’ in French is l’envers.
Take these two syllables, including the l + apostrophe, and flip them around. You end up with “vers-l’en”, and with a bit of an orthographical tweak, you get “verlan”.
This is all well and neat for two-syllable words:
La voiture --- turevoi
But what about single-syllable words, from which many of the most popularly used examples seem to derive?
We are taught that the final –e of a French word is silent - except when singing. Think Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien…”
But to the French mind and ear, this –e is still there, so it is perfectly acceptable to use it to form the first part of the new slang word:
la femme --- la meuf
la bande --- la deban
Even a word like ‘flic’, which is already slang for police officer, which has no final –e, can be dealt with in same way, because it is understood that consonants tend to need vowels:
le flic --- le keuf
This new word has itself undergone the verlanisation treatment, but is now unrecognisable from the original:
keuf --- feuk
This has the added bonus, to the type of person who uses it, to sound pleasingly similar to the English vulgarity!
Some notes about usage
· The gender of the new word stays the same as the original.
· Don’t be making up your own. It might be fun, but it’s really naff!
· Watching the excellent “Engrenages” (Spiral) series on BBC iPlayer, you would think that verlan is commonly used in modern French. All three of my most trusted go-to native-speaker friends and colleagues, however, from different parts of France tell me that it sounds a bit démodé now; middle-aged people trying to sound cool. The French yoof have developed other slang words. More on that one day, maybe. Trouble is, the time it takes to cotton on to any new linguistic fads, and they’re already too passé to be using. Innit.
Andrew Wenger, founder and director of SameSky languages.
In our language lessons, we might deal in passing with slang expressions like these, but more as a point of cultural interest than an encouragement to use them!
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