Did you understand the headline of this article? If you did, well done — you know Verlan! In fact, any French speaker probably understands the basic principle behind this French argot. But explaining the richness and cultural impact of Verlan to the meuf* who just arrived from Stockholm for her year abroad or to your friend visiting Paris from Berlin — that takes the right approach. But don’t worry. We’re here for you! Discover some key Verlan examples and our four golden rules to becoming an expert in ès-verlan, without going relou.
*Scroll to the bottom for a glossary of Verlan examples and the meanings of the terms you’ll encounter in this article.
Four Golden Rules To Teach Your Friends Verlan
Rule 1: When it comes to Verlan, there are no rules.
No use consulting the Académie Française, learning up to the B2 level or finding the perfect learning method. Verlan isn’t learned, it isn’t read and it’s only very rarely written down. Yet everyone understands it (even your reum). And because it’s mostly spoken, well… everyone has a go (including my reum, which can be embarrassing, trust me).
The good news is that, without any clearly defined rules, you can vesqui the dreary, immutable grammatical norms entrenched in the language of Molière. Which saves a lot of time (especially if you’re trying to pécho the person you’re talking to).
Rule 2: Okay. There are some rules.
Let’s start at the start. The guiding principle behind Verlan is childishly simple: verlan = l’envers (“the other way around”). The idea is to invert the syllables in a word to create a new one, using a process that linguists cheerfully refer to as “metathesis.” But watch out! Like any self-respecting secret language, Verlan has its own rules; you can’t just make it up. As well as sounding “hensibleincompre” (my best English attempt), your lack of style could fait piet. If you don’t want to end up kéblo seul-tout, best not to just say n’importe nawak.
But back to our main point: how to form words. You know by now that Verlan is a complex (but fun-filled) form of metathesis. Broadly speaking, there are four steps generally needed to construct a word in Verlan:
- Highlighting/removing the word’s final syllable
- Breaking the word down into syllables
- Inverting the syllables
- Phonetic changes to make the new word more pronounceable
Earlier in this article, I used the term vesqui, which is simply Verlan for the verb esquiver (“to dodge, avoid”). Let’s see how “verlanization” works in this case:
- Esquiver > (removing the final syllable) > Esquiv’
- Esquiv’ > (breaking down the word into syllables) > Es/qui/v’
- Es/qui/v’ > (inverting the syllables) > V’/es/qui
- V’/es/qui > (phonetic changes) > Vesqui
Easy, right? A great example of the subtleties of French… which also provides a certain advantage when it comes to learning other foreign languages!
Rule 3: You don’t speak Verlan – you perform it.
By following our formula above, you should now be well-equipped to teach Verlan effectively. And what could be more fun than a little cultural conversation with the person who’s caught your eye?
Today, Verlan has become an integral part of the French language, but it was massively popularized first and foremost in the 1980s and ’90s. Used as a rallying symbol among urban youth in the 1970s, it was thrust into the spotlight by French singer Renaud, who saw it as an opportunity to reinvigorate French music with his irreverent, straight-talking lyrics.
With its power to create new words, Verlan opens the door for new rhymes, thereby helping to enrich the language. And Verlan has also allowed European French rap to carve out its own linguistic identity in contrast to American hip-hop slang. And that’s just ouf.
Rule 4: Follow the advice of our Verlan “experts.”
Frankly, the biggest problem when it comes to using — and therefore learning — Verlan is that it’s highly instinctive. Of course, as with our more “classical” references, we’ve all incorporated certain Verlan words into our everyday vocab. And that can sometimes come off as corny. So if you’re wondering if it’s cheum to say something’s cheum? The answer’s yes — it’s cheum.
If in doubt, check out the advice videos made by our French-speaking experts, who we recently asked for their favorite Verlan examples and expressions. That way, at least you can avoid la tehon!
Verlan Examples: A Glossary Of Terms
en deuspi (from the English “speed”): quickly
meuf (from “femme”): wife, woman, girl
relou (from “lourd”): annoying, tiresome
reum (from “mère”): mother
vesqui (from “esquiver”): to dodge, avoid
pécho (from “choper”): to flirt with
tiep (from “pitié”): sad, pitiful
kéblo (from “bloqué”): stuck
seul-tout (from “tout seul”): on your own
n’importe nawak (from “n’importe quoi”): anything
ouf (from “fou”): crazy
cheum (from “moche”): ugly
la tehon (from “la honte”): the shame
This article was originally published on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.