OT: More Verlan (NY Times article)
Cohen, Gerald Leonard
gcohen at UMR.EDU
Fri Oct 12 00:22:18 UTC 2007
For those interested, here's another item.
[Top <http://dl.coastline.edu/classes/internet/french198/articles.htm#top> ] New York Times Discovers 'Verlan'
Backward Runs French. Reels the Mind.
August 17, 2002
By ALEXANDER STILLE, New York Times
Those who have studied French but haven't been in France
for a while may find themselves confused when they overhear
conversations that sound familiar but remain largely
incomprehensible. Gradually they may realize, or some kind
soul may explain, that what they are hearing is a popular
slang called Verlan in which standard French spellings or
syllables are reversed or recombined, or both.
Thus the standard greeting "Bonjour, ça va?" or "Good day,
how are you?" becomes "Jourbon, ça av?" "Une fête" (a
party) has become "une teuf"; the word for woman or wife,
femme, has become meuf; a café has become féca; and so on.
The word Verlan itself is a Verlanization of the term
l'envers, meaning "the reverse."
Within a couple of decades, Verlan has spread from the
peripheral housing projects of France 's poorest immigrants,
heavily populated with Africans and North African Arabs,
and gained widespread popularity among young people across
France . It has seeped into film dialogue, advertising
campaigns, French rap and hip-hop music, the mainstream
media. It has even made it into some of the country's
A language of alienation that has, paradoxically, also
become a means of integration, Verlan expresses France 's
love-hate relationship with its immigrant community and has
begun to attract a number of scholarly studies.
"Speaking backwards becomes a metaphor of opposition, of
talking back," writes Natalie Lefkowitz, a professor of
French applied linguistics at Central Washington University
in Ellensburg , Wash. , and the author of "Talking Backwards,
Looking Forwards: The French Language Game Verlan" (Gunter
Narr, 1991), which, when it was published, was one of the
first major studies of Verlan.
But along with its subversive element, Ms. Lefkowitz
explained in an interview, "for the young urban
professional, Verlan is a form of political correctness
expressing solidarity with and awareness of the immigrant
community at a time of anti-immigrant politics."
The first documented uses of Verlan date to the 19th
century, when it was used as a code language among
criminals, said the French scholar Louis-Jean Calvet. But
the current and most widespread use of Verlan has its
origins in the growth of France 's banlieues, the peripheral
areas outside major cities, where the government built
high-rise housing for its immigrant worker population after
World War II. In the 1960's and 70's, many North African
workers were joined there by their wives and families.
"This housing that was supposed to be temporary, and was
built intentionally apart from the mainstream society,
became permanent," said Meredith Doran, an assistant
professor of French applied linguistics at Penn State
University, who recently finished a dissertation on the
culture and language of the French banlieues. Their
inhabitants also call a banlieue "la Cité", which has been
Verlanized into "la Téci."
Verlan caught on among the second generation of immigrants
who were living between cultures. "They were born in France
and often did not speak Arabic," Ms. Lefkowitz said, "but
they did not feel integrated into France ."
Ms. Doran explained, "Verlan was a way of their
establishing their language and their own distinct
identity." The term beur, which is a Verlanization of the
French word Arabe, refers specifically to the second- and
third-generation North Africans. Until recently, there was
even a radio station of French North Africans called Radio
"Verlan has many functions," writes Vivienne Méla, an
anthropologist who teaches at the University of Paris VIII ,
in a recent article called "Verlan 2000." "Initially, it
was a secret language that allowed people to speak about
illicit activities without being understood. And while
Verlan conserves this function, its principal function is
for young people to express both their difference and their
attachment to a French identity. They have invented a
culture that is in between the culture of their parents,
which they no longer possess, and the French culture to
which they don't have complete access."
Verlan, however, is also widely spoken by the other
immigrant groups of the banlieues, mainly sub-Saharan
Africans and Caribbean blacks. And Verlan, along with
reversing syllables and words, has also incorporated terms
from Creole, Arabic, Rom (the language of the Gypsies) and
American slang to create a kind of speech of the
"Verlan serves as an interface between these different
groups who do not have a common language," said Alain Rey,
one of the editors of the Petit Robert dictionary, the
first of the standard dictionaries to incorporate a number
of Verlan terms.
More than just reversing words, scholars say, Verlan
reverses what have traditionally been regarded as negative
qualities in France - ethnic and religious differences,
non-French identity, nonstandard speech - and turns them
into positive attributes that are consciously cultivated.
"In a country obsessed with linguistic purity, it turns a
stigma into a positive emblem, a form of covert prestige,"
Ms. Lefkowitz said. Verlanizing words, she and others say,
changes their tone and meaning. "When you say téci for
cité, it is a way of expressing affection, like saying
homeland," she added.
Verlan, in the views of Mr. Rey and others, is also a
playful way for the French to forge a language for dealing
with ethnic, racial and religious differences. The
Verlanized words for Arab, black or Jew "allow you to mark
racial and culture differences without insulting people,"
Ms. Lefkowitz said.
But Leyla Habane, a Moroccan-French university student who
provided research assistance when Ms. Doran was working on
her dissertation, is leery of that interpretation. "I think
these terms can be pejorative in any form," she said,
although she admitted that they could also be used
playfully. Perhaps because it has been so widely adopted by
most French, she finds the term beur offensive.
But there is no question that Verlan is used to discuss
race, ethnicity and other taboo subjects. In one recent
study, the French scholars Jean-Luc Azra and Véronique
Cheneau, both of the University of Paris VIII , documented
about 350 Verlan terms, which tended to be clustered around
a handful of subjects: illegal activities like theft and
drugs; race, ethnicity and national origin; and taboo
topics like sex, as well as everyday objects on the street
and in the subway.
Verlan was discovered by mainstream French in the 1980's
after a series of major riots and confrontations with
police brought the problems of la Cité to the attention of
most French. "These riots put a spotlight on the youth
subculture of the banlieus, and that's when everybody
noticed that these youths had this language of their own,"
Ms. Doran said.
A series of books and films about life in the banlieues
followed, bringing Verlan to the attention of a wider
public. The 1995 movie "La Haine" ("Hate"), about the lives
of three housing-project friends, with much of its dialogue
in Verlan, was a revelation to many French, though some
found parts of it incomprehensible. Also very popular was a
film thriller called "Les Ripoux," which is a Verlanization
of the French word pourri, meaning rotten. Ripoux has
become a common term for corrupt police officers.
Verlan became so popular that even former French President
François Mitterrand showed off his knowledge of it during a
television interview several years ago. When he was asked
whether he knew the word chébran (Verlan for branché, which
means hip), he answered, "of course", but added, "That's
already passé; you should say câblé," which literally means
"wired for cable," but means "plugged in" or with-it in
Ms. Lefkowitz explained: "There are now different kinds of
Verlan. There is the Verlan of the original group, the
working class immigrants from the banlieus. Then there is
the Verlan of the urban professionals, bourgeois Verlan or
`Verlan geoisbour.' There is also the Verlan of the
teenagers who use it to distinguish themselves from the
adult word as a game and a form of amusement."
The appropriation of Verlan by mainstream French culture is
viewed with some uneasiness by those in the banlieues. "They
find it annoying," Ms. Habane said. "They feel it is their
language, and now they want to take this from us, too."
As a result, Verlan keeps renewing so that the speech of la
Cité stays a step ahead of geoisbour Verlan. Many terms
have also been "reverlanized." Beur, Ms. Habane said, now
that it has been widely adopted by the French, is sometimes
seen as pejorative, with many North African speakers using
the term reub, which is beur itself turned inside out.
As a Frenchwoman of Moroccan descent pursuing a university
degree, Ms. Habane expressed mixed feelings about Verlan.
"I worry that it creates a kind of linguistic gap between
these young people and the rest of the world that can
become a trap," she said. "When I speak to some kids in my
neighborhood, they often don't understand me."
And while the emulation of Verlan and banlieue culture might
be flattering, she worries about recent polls showing that
a majority of French feel that there are too many Arabs in
Whatever the case, Verlan has made its mark on the
language, said Mr. Rey, the lexicographer. "Many of them
have become so common, they are not even thought of as
Verlan," he said, and their proliferation in newspapers and
novels has forced Le Petit Robert to include many Verlan
terms in its most recent editions, to the annoyance of
purists at the Académie française, whose dictionary has
"We feel that a dictionary should reflect the language that
is actually spoken," Mr. Rey said. "Besides, I think, on
balance, there is much creativity in Verlan, and it shows
that the French language is very much alive."
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