So, as an assiduous student, you have been attending your classes for a number of years, but now you find yourself swimming in the French sea and talking to natives in their country. You are suddenly hit by waves of strange words that no one had ever told you about before. Words like chelou or meuf, for example. They do sound odd, don’t they? But believe me, those are words you are going to encounter everyday if you live in France or decide to travel there.
Bienvenue dans le monde du verlan!
The first forms of verlan appeared several centuries ago, in literature. However, it is difficult to give an exact date as to precisely when it was created.
So, what are these strange words? Verlan is a form of oral French slang that basically consists of inverting the syllables within a word. For instance, the word verlan (pronounced /vɛʀlɑ̃/) itself is a perfect example of this process. The meaning of this word is l’envers (pronounced /lɑ̃vɛʀ/), which means “reverse” in English. However, if you look closely, you’ll realize that verlan is just the word l’envers, with the syllables said in reverse! Quite self-explanatory, isn’t it? Verlan is typically used among youth as a means for keeping communication coded, so that they can talk about things they don’t want other people to understand. It is also used to sound cool, being that some words have become trendy.
So, in this article, I am going to explain how such words are formed and then provide a list of common examples and a short sample conversation.
It is important to note that these are words that you will come across in very informal conversations. The focus is exclusively on the way it sounds and not on how it is written. Although some verlan words now officially appear in the dictionary, that’s an entirely different story (amoureux de la langue française pure, indignez-vous!). Thus, there is no standardized spelling since this slang is essentially passed down orally.
So, let’s begin by reviewing how these words are constructed. There are four main “steps” that need to be looked at in order to understand how to form them:
Step #1: Adding to or taking away the last syllable
For certain words, either a silent -e is added to the end of the word or the last vowel is removed prior to this operation being applied.
- sec (skinny) > sèkeu (/sɛkø/)
Step #2: Dividing the word
The word is now divided into two parts. Once again, there are no absolute rules about how to carry out this process. It all depends on how the final word sounds. Pronunciation is all that matters; it has to flow.
- sèkeu (/sɛkø/) > sè-keu (/sɛkø/)
Step #3: Inverting the syllables of the word
The different parts of the word are now inverted. This must be done to every verlan word, being that this is their defining characteristic.
- sè-keu (/sɛkø/) > keu-sè (/køsɛ/)
Step #4: Truncation of the last vowel
Sometimes, just like in the first step, the final vowel of the resulting word is removed.
- keu-sè (/køsɛ/) > keuss (/køs/)
You should keep in mind that these are not strict rules and, thus, there are many exceptions. The purpose of these steps is to serve as general guidelines for French learners eager to grasp verlan. Also, it should be noted that not all words go through all four steps.
Now, here is a short list of very colloquial words and expressions:
Example #1: Bête (/bɛt/) > Teubé (/tøbe/)
A silent -e is first added to the end of the word (bêteu /bɛtø/), then bê-teu (/bɛtø/) is inverted to become teubé.
- T’es teubé ou quoi? Are you an idiot or what?
Example #2: Bizarre (/bizaʀ/) > Zarb’ (/zaʀb)
Bi-zarre is first inverted, and then the final -i is removed (the word zarbi exists as well).
- Ce mec est vraiment trop zarb’! That dude is such a weirdo!
Example #3: Choper (/ʃɔpe/) > Pécho (/peʃɔ/)
This is a simple inversion of cho-per.
- Tu l’as pécho hier soir? Did you hook up with her/him last night?
Example #4: Femme (/fam/) > Meuf (/mœf/)
A silent -e is first added at the end of the word (femm-eu /famɛ/), then fe-mmeu is inverted to become meufa (/mɛfa/). Finally, the last vowel is removed, leaving us with meuf (/mœf/).
While I don’t like it because I find it disrespectful, this expression is very common nowadays. It can either refer to a female person or to one’s girlfriend.
- C’est ta meuf? Is she your girlfriend?
Example #5: Merci (/mɛʀsi/) > Cimer (/simɛʀ/)
This is a simple inversion of mer-ci.
- Cimer mec! Thanks dude!
Example #3: Tomber (/tɔ̃be/) > Béton (/betɔ̃/)
This is a simple inversion of tom-bé.
- Laisse béton t’as rien compris. Forget it, you’ve got it all wrong.
Now that you have all the basics covered, try to read this snippet of natural dialogue between two teenagers and see if you can understand it:
- Alors mec, sans vouloir être relou (/ʀ(ə)lu/), ça se passe comment avec les meufs (/mœf/), t’as déjà réussi à pécho (/peʃɔ/)? So dude, I don’t mean to be a pain in the butt, but how are you doing with girls? Have you ever managed to hook up?
- J’en ai rencontré une le mois dernier mais ça s’est pas bien passé. Mais c’est un truc de ouf (/uf/) comment elle était tigen (/tiʒɑ̃/)! I met a girl last month, but it didn’t go well. But, it’s crazy how nice she was!
As you probably noticed, there that only a few words that have been converted into verlan, and that’s generally the case.
So, what is the point of all this anyway? Well, if you simply need to use French occasionally, then of course verlan will be of no use to you. However, if you want to have real authentic French experiences, then you need to understand how natives express themselves on a daily basis, and slang plays a major role there.
I hope this article helped you. Now, have fun and remember that you can’t use verlan with just anyone!
Good luck on your journey!