Verlan Explained

Verlan Explained

by Marie-Pascale Michaux

Updated November 9, 2022

I’d like to see that in a dictionary.

Have you ever heard a group of young people talking to each other in the streets and wondered why you could not understand? There can be a big difference between what is proper language and what is actually spoken in the streets or between friends. The same holds true regardless of the language. That’s why it’s so important to get a lot of practice speaking when you learn a new language. Grammar rules and vocabulary are important but, let’s face it, spoken language can have a life of its own.

What did he say?

Dialects and argotic language evolved from the need to separate one group from the rest of society, while remaining a part of it. For example, young people from older ones, those from a certain region from those of the rest of the country, criminals from law-abiding citizens, or even one profession from the rest. Dialects and argotic language allow members of the group to recognise and understand each other while keeping outsiders in the dark. Since the rest of society doesn’t like to be kept outside and tends to be paranoid about it, it is often seen as something negative. But it also has advantages. It can reinforce the bonds between members of the group and makes it easier to recognise other members of the same group. So, it makes sense that, when you get to a new place, you want to learn the language of the place too, in order to blend in.

When in France…

In France, one those argotic languages is Verlan. The trick here is to switch syllables in familiar words. The name Verlan is itself an example. It’s the result of swiching the syllables of l’envers to form the word Verlan (l’en-vers becomes vers-l’en). Spelling is adapted to be closer to the actual pronunciation of the words since it’s mainly a spoken variation of the language. Here are some other examples of Verlan: chelou (from louche), reum (from mère), ripou (from pourri, usually refers to a corrupted police officer or other official), etc. Can you think of other words that could be transformed into a Verlan equivalent? Or course, while converting some of the words is useful, most of the words in a sentence and the sentence structure itself remain the same as in regular French. Otherwise, it would quickly become unmanageable and lose its usefulness as a means of communication within the group.

Verlan – Music to my ears

Since it’s the language of a part of the population, it’s also very much present in the music. Hip-hop is where you can find most examples of Verlan, although it’s also present in other musical genres. There is even poetry in Verlan and there are many movies or videos where you can hear it spoken. It’s usually associated with the younger generation and especially in certain areas where poverty is also very present.

To speak or not to speak Verlan

As part of a subculture, Verlan is very dynamic and in constant evolution. Sometimes, some Verlan expressions spoken by one generation fall out of fashion with the next only to come back again later on. Another interesting aspect is that, as some Verlan expressions become more widespread, they make their way into regular French and they have to be reswitched to disguise them again. It is the case with meuf (from femme, meaning wife or woman) and beur (from arabe, meaning first-generation arab immigrants). These were re-Verlanized, becoming feumeu and rebeu. Confused yet? Well, that’s kind of the purpose of an argotic language like Verlan!  

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