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.

Gerald Cohen

[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


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

 leading dictionaries.

 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

 current slang.

 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

 the country.

 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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