To reverse, or not to reverse?

stack_of_booksDid you know that the French language has a very strange slang called “verlan”? Being French and having been raised in France, it never occurred to me that it could be something specific to my language and very odd to other people. I realized that when I told my former British housemate about it. His reaction? “You reverse words? Like in “table/ble-ta”? That is stupid!” And yes it is, when you think about it. So for those of you who never heard of this French invention, “verlan” (which is “l’envers” (“reverse”) reversed and adapted) is a slang that plays around the syllables. It is similar to pig Latin but many terms are actually spoken in France!

So, to form the verlan of a word, simply divide it into syllables, reverse them, change the spelling so that it’s easier to pronounce and you’ve got it! Example with the French word for “shame”: “honte – hon-te – te-hon – tehon”. Some terms are so common that sometimes we don’t even realize they were verlaned: ripou (pourri=corrupted cop, which is in the dictionary!) or meuf (femme=woman). This technique developed during the Second World War as an encrypted language and was most active in the 90s but we can still find terms in our everyday communications: I, myself, use a lot of “relou” (which means annoying, verlan of “lourd”=heavy) and “chelou” (verlan of “louche” which means dodgy).

What’s the point, you might say?

Well, reversing the word is not just about creating a coded language, it also alters and/or emphasizes its true meaning. So, before today, I had never thought about how strange it could be for foreigners, but now that I think about it, I can’t help but wonder: are the French the only ones doing this? I’ve checked with my European coworkers: Spain: no, England: nope, Portugal: still no. And I’m not the only one wondering if this is a French thing: other people posted the question on the web and it turns out that this type of slang is also used in Japan, Argentina (as well as Peru and Venezuela apparently) and in Wolof-speaking countries (as far as I know!). Well, I don’t speak much Japanese, let’s not talk about Wolof… But I happen to speak Spanish and I was very intrigued! Naturally, I googled “palabras al revés en Argentina” (words in reverse in Argentina) and I found “hablar el vesre” on a forum, how funny is that! A few examples: “feca” for “café” (dropping the accent), “jermu” for “mujer”, “novi” for “vino”… That’s quite simple, the thing is to know exactly what words they actually reverse! I’m not planning on going to Argentina in the near future, that will leave me time to do some more research and become a pro at “vesre”: “un feca por vorfa”?, not quite yet… I also discovered that some people from there or who have been there have no idea that kind of slang exists in other countries, what a shame.

So, to answer my question: no, France is not the only country doing that, and here I was thinking that my home country was special… Well, it may not be the only country speaking verlan but it certainly is the one where it first developed. I’m not talking about the 90s, no… Did you know it actually started in the Middle-Age? Ok, it wasn’t really verlan, but people used metatheses (putting the words in a different order). It expanded during the 20th century in literature but was only used orally much later. It was conveyed through music and cinema: I’m thinking rap music or even Renaud (famous French musician) with the famous “Laisse béton”, Claude Zidi (French director) and the “Ripoux” as well as Jacques Dutronc (another French musician) who wrote an entire song in verlan! From the 70s on, it became active and was most spoken in the (underprivileged) suburbs: verlan was the signature of the people living there. I could go on and on about this amazing invention but there is just so much to say about it. And what about the future? It’s only 2014, who knows what kind of twisted language game people will coin in the years to come… As T.S. Eliot cleverly said: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice”. I’ll let you think about it…

For those interested in the Spanish slang, check out the article below:

http://www.speakinglatino.com/argentine-slang-in-reverse-vesre/

Here’s French slang explained in music:

And here is the Jacques Dutronc song:

Enjoy mis amigos!

A.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Charlene
    Jan 26, 2014 @ 11:10:26

    Truly fascinating to discover something I never knew about 2 languages I’ve been using for 20 years! I wonder, would I or indeed a native French speaker be able to apply Verlan to any word or are there only specific word that are used this way? Is more socially appropriate to use Verlan in particular settings (informal)? And does it only apply to France or other French speaking countries too?

    Reply

    • aurelithere
      Jan 26, 2014 @ 20:24:42

      Hey Charlene 🙂 Yes I realized how interesting/unusual this was when I discussed it with an English native. You can’t just apply it to any word, even though some people did it to excess! You need to know what terms are reversed and their new spelling/pronunciation. For instance, the verlan for “femme” (woman) is “meuf”, and the verlan for “flic” (cop) is “keuf” (flic – “fli-que” – “que-fli” – keuf) so this isn’t very intuitive! The verlaned term is reversed and then adapted. To answer your second question, this is slang and was mostly used among young people. It is originally a ‘ghetto’ slang and was mostly used by rappers. You wouldn’t use it in an interview or in a conversation with an erderly 😉 Also note that, even though some terms really stuck and are in the dictionary (some of them I use on a daily basis!), this is considered an outdated slang. I don’t think the new generation uses it, they are now inventing new words and borrowing many terms from the English language (I hear the word SWAG is very trendy!). This technique was also mocked and used as a joke by many people (if you hear someone reversing away, they’re probably not serious!). I sometimes find myself thanking people using “ci-mer”, but this is always as a joke! A significant part of the population found this slang to be ridiculous and even hideous. As far as I know, this is specific to France, my Belgian colleague has told me there was no such thing in Belgium. I speak Spanish as well and had never heard of it before, not even in uni!

      Reply

  2. Maison Bentley Style
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 19:55:32

    Amazing…I never knew this! xxx

    Reply

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