Mutilating French, but not too badly

« previous post | next post »

When I was writing "Mutilating Hangeul: visual puns as a parallel orthography" (10/8/22), I thought of including a reference to Pig Latin, but it is so mild in comparison to Yaminjeongeum that I decided to leave it out.  French Verlan lies somewhere between the two in the degree with which it deforms the original language on which it is based.

Verlan (French pronunciation: ​[vɛʁlɑ̃]) is a type of argot in the French language, featuring inversion of syllables in a word, and is common in slang and youth language. It rests on a long French tradition of transposing syllables of individual words to create slang words. The word verlan itself is an example of verlan (making it an autological word). It is derived from inverting the sounds of the syllables in l'envers ([lɑ̃vɛʁ], "the inverse", frequently used in the sense of "back-to-front").


A decade and more ago, Verlan received considerable attention on Language Log (see "Selected readings"), but then it lay more or less dormant for a considerable period of time.  A few years ago, it came back in sight with this article:

"Verlan – French Slang", ThoughtCo. (1/30/19)

Verlan is a form of French slang that consists of playing around with syllables, kind of along the same lines as pig Latin. Unlike pig Latin, however, verlan is actively spoken in France. Many verlan words have become so commonplace that they are used in everyday French.

To "verlan" a word, simply separate it into syllables, reverse them, and put the word back together. In order to maintain the correct pronunciation, the verlaned word often undergoes some spelling adjustments. Unnecessary letters are dropped, while other letters are added to make pronunciation logical. There are no real rules for this; it's just something to be aware of. Note that not every word can or should be verlaned; verlan is used essentially to emphasize or hide the meaning of the main word(s) in a sentence.

How It Works

Let's start with the word l'envers, which means "the reverse." Separate l'envers into its two syllables l'en and vers. Invert them, put them together into a single word, and then adjust the spelling:

    • l'envers… l'en vers… vers l'en… versl'en… verslen… verlen… verlan

Thus, you can see that verlan is l'envers pronounced à l'envers ("reverse" pronounced in reverse).

Pig Latin, Verlan, Yaminjeongeum, and all such subversions of daily language are engaged in for various purposes:  for fun, to keep outsiders in secret, to avoid censorship, and so on.  They are argots, and people who are not "native speakers / users" have to engage in a process of decipherment have to make any sense of them — or just be left in the dark.

Selected readings

[h.t. Alan Kennedy]


  1. Philip Anderson said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 7:11 am

    A long tradition indeed. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’, Tristan calls himself Tantris when he disguises himself as a minstrel. I haven’t checked if any French version used the same name.

  2. Coby said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 8:35 am

    There is also the feature that, at least in one-syllable words, the vowel is usually neutralized to -eu-: femme -> meuf, mec -> queum, juif -> feuj, Arabe -> beur.

  3. Keith Gaughan said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 8:54 am

    A number of other languages have the similar forms of back slang. There's Podana in Greek, and Argentine Spanish has Lunfardo.

  4. Trem said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 12:52 pm

    @ Philip Anderson: yes, at least one of the French versions (Béroul or Thomas, can't remember which) has Tantris. Merci pour ce rappel !

  5. Victor Mair said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 3:05 pm

    Someone just told me about the "op" language, which seems to have been popular with American children in the mid-70s. (China = chop-i-nop-a; America = A-mop-e-rop-i-cop-a). I never heard of it.

  6. Jim Breen said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 3:18 pm

    We used the "op" language when I was a kid in Australia in the 1950s.

  7. John From Cincinnati said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 3:36 pm

    We spoke "op" in my New York City high school, class of 1962. I can still sing our school song using it.

  8. Philip Anderson said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 3:50 pm

    The British slang word “yob” derived from back slang, acquiring a negative connotation at some point.

  9. Terry Hunt said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 4:30 pm

    @ Philip Anderson — Encountering it in the later 1960's, recentism led me to assume that it was a recently minted negative, stigmatising a young hooligan, ruffian or oik as "mentally backward" by refering to him as a literal "backward boy". I was not, of course, then aware of its relatively innocuous 19th-century origin.

    Wikipedia (citing the Online Etymological Dictionary) states that it "only began to acquire a derogatory connotation in the 1930s."

  10. Terry Hunt said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 4:36 pm

    Kindly assume insertion of this errant "r" into my last.

  11. Julian said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 5:36 pm

    In Sydney, Australia, in the mid 1960s, 'up' language was a thing among the boarders at my primary school.

  12. Jerry Packard said,

    October 10, 2022 @ 10:16 pm

    about the "op" language:

    We used it, and called it 'bop talk.'

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    October 11, 2022 @ 3:14 am

    I-may other-may aught-tay e-may oo-tay eak-spay ack-bay ang-slay en-whay i-ay as-way a-ay ild-chay.

  14. Philip Anderson said,

    October 11, 2022 @ 7:00 am

    The classic “The Lore & Language of Schoolchildren” (Iona & Peter Opie, 1959) has a section on Secret Languages, including ’pig Latin’ (as in Philip Taylor’s example) and a range of syllables being inserted before vowels (only with -g in the examples rather than the p/b mentioned above, which may regional).
    Eggy-peggy language was mentioned by Nancy Mitford, and the oldest example was from 1808 (used by adults).

  15. cliff arroyo said,

    October 11, 2022 @ 8:53 am

    "Eggy-peggy language"

    It's used in this episode of the late 1980s Brit sitcom After Henry… first at around 9 minutes in and it shows up again at the end as the punchline to the episode.

    There's also the -izz- infix from AAVE. First used on records probably in Frankie Smith's Double Dutch Bus, starting at about 1.35

  16. George said,

    October 13, 2022 @ 10:23 am

    Filipino slang will do this too. Ex. "Yosi" for cigarette. Takes the first and last syllables of "sigarilyo" and swaps them.

  17. Louis Lecailliez said,

    October 14, 2022 @ 4:13 pm

    Since we are speaking of French, I have to report two phenomena I observed. I've been out for France for half a decade shielded from the street language, which make it easy to notice changes.

    The first phenomenon is girls being addressed to using male words. I heard that first in a local train where girls where using "mecs" (guys) and "frères" (brothers) between themselves. I double checked that there was no guy in the group that would make it a totally normal thing to say. One of the speaker also spoke/joked at some point about opening an onlyfans so that she could become her own "enter… entre… entrepreneur". While she finally succeeded pronouncing the word on her third try, she didn't say it nor correct it to the feminine form "entrepreneuse". At first, I dismissed it as a lack of education for this eccentricity, since those speakers only graduated from high school.

    Yet I heard another group of girls using male-only words to call themselves in another train (this time using singular) a few weeks later. Finally, I heard it from speaker at a university cafeteria, which confirms that even somewhat educated younger speaker will speak like that. I asked some youngsters about it and they replied it's not shocking, it's a normal thing to do.

    On a side note, I find it amusing that while pronouns use is a touchy subject in the US where "she" (or "they") tends to replace "he", and feminists try to push their so-called inclusive writing in France, the speaking behavior of young goes in opposite direction by erasing the feminine.

    The second phenomenon is people of obviously non-muslim non-ghetto background calling each other "frère" (again, irrespective of the actual gender). This trend shows that islamic culture and ideas is gaining ground in France (in addition to new Arabic words and expressions being used more and more).

  18. Jenny Chu said,

    October 14, 2022 @ 9:51 pm

    @Philip Anderson – an older Malaysian friend who was at a Catholic girls' school in the 1950s once introduced me to one of those languages, which she and her schoolmates called the "g" language – introduce a g into every syllable. Whigich shege agand heger schoogoolmagates cagalled thege juhgee laganguagage. Even in her 70s, she was able to speak it as rapidly (and, to me, incomprehensibly) as she had as a girl – in English, Chinese, or Malay.

RSS feed for comments on this post