Parlez-Vous Verlan?

March 26, 2002

The French have famously campaigned against diluting their language with English words but, as a new BBC radio series reports, a force for change has grown inside France itself. Verlan is a dialect that has emerged from the suburbs across most French cities. It started gaining popularity in the early 1980s and has never looked back.

Teenagers have adopted the new street language as their own, and many social commentators are claiming it is born of inequalities within French society.

In verlan, syllables in existing French words are reversed to produce a completely new word. For example bouteille - or bottle - becomes teibou. Or to make things even more complicated, sometimes one syllable can be dropped altogether. Take voiture, or car. This becomes turvoi and then tourv.

The name itself comes from reversing the word l'envers - meaning back to front. The urban dialect has been further popularised by rap music and film.

Rap music in France has become a commercial phenomenon as groups such as IAM and 113 have crossed over from the underground to achieve chart success. Rapper Prodige Namor, from chart-topping group IAM, says the French music scene is no longer dominated by UK pop bands.

"Young people now grow up with hip hop. We have a lot of very good writers and very good producers too," he says. "I didn't think this could happen 10 years ago - we are so proud."

Kids Vs Academics

Oliver Cachin, a music journalist, calls rap the loudspeaker of the suburbs. He says teenagers are using language to create their own identity and to fight the Americanisation all around them.

"Kids from the suburbs are doing as much for a lively French language as the academics are doing in their own way," he says.

Jean Pierre Goudailler, professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne, believes Verlan is flourishing because it allows young people to bring their own identities into language.

"That's why they use words from Arabic languages, African languages and Creole from the French West Indies. Young people are divided socially and also by language," he says.

La Carpette Anglaise

What the French still worry most about in the field of language, however, is the English language taking over the world. A new award called La Carpette Anglaise was recently established for an individual "who particularly distinguishes himself through his determination to promote the domination of the Anglo-American language in France."

The first winner was Renault chairman Louis Schweitzer for insisting on using English in board meetings, despite the fact that everyone present was French.

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