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Learning a Language in Reverse
When I started learning French at l’Alliance Française Paris in 1979, I had no idea how backwards my language skills were. Literally. At 21 years of age, I had arrived in Paris with scant knowledge of the language. Most days I would sit in Luxembourg Gardens with other foreign students, and we would fumble through the language together. After a few months, we were able to communicate in French. But when having conversations with native French students in the cafés, it still seemed impossible to understand them. Even the simplest of phrases seemed to not resemble French at all. Then one day a friend introduced me to Verlan.
Verlan is a type of slang used primarily by the young to communicate in a manner which, in theory, would be difficult for adults to understand. The French word l’envers (the reverse) is switched around to become Verlan. Some (but not all) of the words in a sentence have the last syllable placed at the front of the word. But there is more…
“Merci beaucoup” becomes “cimer boku”. A shopping list of “citrons, basilic, pesto” becomes “troncis, sabilic, stope”. “Moi” becomes “ouame”. C’est zarbi (bizarre), n’est-ce pas?
Imagine trying to understand a foreign language, not knowing that a word game is in play. My head hurts just remembering this experience! While Wikipedia has a good description of Verlan, it is primarily a spoken language not lending itself to a written set of rules. So, next time you are in Ripar (Paris), try saying Jourbon (Bonjour) to someone on the tromé (metro). It could make you ouf (fou)!
In the spring of 2023 while in the south of France, I decided to try my hand at Verlan to see if it was still in use. In Verlan, I asked a young man where the bathrooms were. “Ou sont les lettois (toilettes)?” The young man replied, “Ah, Verlan. La-bas. Suivez la zicmu (musique).”
Those who know Verlan have the feeling of being in a secret club, of which I am finally a member. And cimer boku to my friend Pierre-Jean in Paris for helping me with this description of Verlan.