What is Verlan? Verlan Explained

Verlan is a form of French slang characterised by reversing the syllables or sounds of words: it often involves taking a word, reversing its syllables, and sometimes modifying the reversed version further to fit the phonetics of French. The word ‘verlan’ itself is the reverse of ‘l’envers’! Verlan can be fluid and dynamic, with new terms constantly being created and existing ones evolving over time. 

The history of verlan is closely tied to the social and cultural landscape of France, particularly in the suburbs of major cities like Paris. Verlan emerged in the mid-20th century as a form of slang used primarily by marginalised communities, including immigrants and working-class youth. Its origins are rooted in the need for these groups to develop a distinct form of expression that set them apart from mainstream society while also serving as a form of solidarity among peers.

What is Verlan? Verlan Explained

What Is Verlan? Verlan Explained

Verlan originated in the post-World War II era, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, within the working-class neighbourhoods and immigrant communities surrounding major French cities. These areas, known as “banlieues” or suburbs, were often characterised by socio-economic challenges, including poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. Immigrants from North Africa, particularly Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, played a significant role in the development of verlan, as they sought to adapt to French society while also maintaining their cultural identity. It provided a sense of belonging and solidarity among youth who shared similar experiences of marginalisation and discrimination. It also functioned as a form of resistance against mainstream culture and language, allowing speakers to assert their own identity and subvert linguistic norms.

The linguistic roots of verlan can be traced back to the linguistic diversity of North Africa, particularly Arabic and Berber languages. Many immigrants brought elements of their native languages with them to France, which influenced the development of verlan. The practice of reversing syllables or sounds in words, a common feature of verlan, has parallels in Arabic linguistic patterns.

Verlan initially began as a form of playful wordplay among youth in the suburbs, often used as a means of communication within their peer groups. Words were reversed or altered to create new terms that were often humorous or cryptic. Over time, verlan evolved beyond a simple linguistic game to become a fully developed slang with its own vocabulary and grammar rules.

While verlan initially remained confined to marginalised communities, it gradually gained wider acceptance and popularity in French popular culture. In the 1980s and 1990s, verlan began to permeate mainstream media, including music, film, and literature. Hip-hop and rap music, in particular, played a significant role in popularising verlan, as artists incorporated verlan terms and linguistic elements into their lyrics.The internet and social media have also contributed to the spread and evolution of verlan, allowing for greater connectivity and exchange among speakers across different regions.

Verlan: A Few Examples

  1. Meuf (from “femme” – woman)
  2. Keum (from “mec” – man) 
  3. Reum (from “mère” – mother) 
  4. Reup (from “père” – father) 
  5. Reuf (from “frère” – brother) 
  6. Céfran (from “français” – french) 
  7. Kainri (from “Américain” – American) 
  8. Ouf (from “fou” – crazy)
  9. Teuf (from “fête” – party)
  10. Relou (from “lourd” – annoying)
  11. Cimer (from “merci” – thanks)
  12. Zbeul (from “bordel” – mess)
  13. Zarbi (from “bizarre” – weird)
  14. Oit (from “toi” – you)
  15. Oim (from “moi” – me)
  16. Pécho (from “choper” – to pick up, to score)
  17. Teufeur (from “fêtard” – party-goer)
  18. Seum (from “mes” – slang for sorrow, disappointment)
  19. Vénère (from “énervé” – angry)
  20. Troma (from “mort” – dead)
  21. Chelou (from “louche” – shady)
  22. Oufissime (from “fou” – crazy and “issime” – extremely)
  23. Remeuf (from “fumer” – to smoke)
  24. Laisse béton (from “laisse tomber” – let it go, nevermind) 
  25. keutru (from “truc” – thing) 
  26. auch (from “chaud” – hot)
  27. Teubé (from “bête” – stupid)
  28. Chanmé (from “méchant” – wicked, but the verlan is positive) 

Understanding Verlan

The popular artist Stromae, famous globally for his unique blend of electronic, hip-hop, and African influences, coupled with thought-provoking lyrics and socially conscious themes, chose a verlan name. Stromae is in fact the verlan of maestro! 

Verlan represents more than just a linguistic phenomenon; it reflects the complex interplay of language, identity, and social dynamics within French society, particularly among marginalised communities. 

As a concept, Verlan can be compared to pig Latin in the English language. Pig Latin is a playful and whimsical language game often enjoyed by children and adults alike. Its origins are somewhat obscure, but it has been a part of English-speaking culture for many decades, if not centuries. The basic principle of Pig Latin involves altering the sounds of words to create a coded version that is more difficult for outsiders to understand.

The rules of Pig Latin are relatively simple. To translate a word into Pig Latin, you must move the first consonant or consonants to the end of the word. Then add the suffix “-ay.” If the word begins with a vowel, just add “-ay” to the end. For example, the word “pig” becomes “igpay,” and the word “banana” becomes “ananabay.”

While Pig Latin may seem like a mere linguistic game, it serves several purposes beyond entertainment. For children, it can be a fun way to play with language, develop phonetic awareness, and practice decoding and encoding words. It also fosters creativity and linguistic playfulness, encouraging individuals to experiment with language in novel ways.

In addition to its role as a children’s game, Pig Latin has also been used as a form of secret communication among adults. Historically, it has been employed as a playful code for conveying messages discreetly, particularly in informal settings or among close friends. Its simplicity and accessibility make it an appealing choice for encoding messages without resorting to more complex cryptographic methods.

Despite its lighthearted nature, Pig Latin remains a beloved linguistic tradition that continues to endure in popular culture. It has been featured in literature, film, and television, often as a humorous or nostalgic reference to childhood pastimes. In an era dominated by digital communication and rapid technological advancements, Pig Latin serves as a charming reminder of the enduring power of language to inspire creativity and connection.

A good way to introduce yourself to Verlan would be to watch La Haine, a French film directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, released in 1995. The movie is known for its portrayal of life in the impoverished suburbs, or “banlieues,” of Paris, and it prominently features verlan, a form of French slang where syllables of words are inverted.

Verlan is used extensively by the characters, who are primarily young men from the suburbs. They use verlan as a way to assert their identity and solidarity within their community, as well as to differentiate themselves from mainstream society. Verlan serves as a linguistic marker of their belonging to the banlieue culture and their rejection of traditional norms.

The use of verlan in the film reflects the characters’ alienation and frustration with their socio-economic circumstances. It becomes a tool for self-expression and rebellion against the marginalisation and discrimination they face. Verlan also adds authenticity to the dialogue, capturing the language and rhythm of everyday speech in the banlieues.