As a French language learner, there's nothing more frustrating than thinking you finally speak at a passable level only to encounter words and a way of speaking that you've never heard. For most French learners, verlan poses a particularly annoying difficulty.
No matter how fluent you are, the odds are high that you'll come across verlan during your journey to learn the French language. As such, understanding this type of French slang is a good way to avoid common frustrations later on in your language learning journey.
What is Verlan?
Verlan can more or less be described as French's version of pig Latin, except it's much more commonly used. While pig Latin is used primarily by kids and middle schoolers in English, verlan is used by French speakers of all ages. In fact, verlan is so common that many words that were created using verlan are used in everyday life. Fortunately, verlan isn't that difficult.
Verlan plays upon the syllables of a word and involves some switching around, but it's rather straightforward. When you have a word you want to put in verlan, you simply divide the word based on its syllables and then reverse them. Sometimes the word may be modified to facilitate pronunciation. Here's an example in English and its translation in French:
Reverse → re-verse → verse-re → versere → verserie
L'envers → l'en-vers → vers-len → verslen → verlan
Where pig Latin and gibberish have varying rules depending on who you talk to, verlan is a type of French slang that is widely spoken across the Francophone world and has consistent rules. Once you learn it, you'll start sounding more like a native speaker than ever before.
How to Master Verlan While Learning French
Now that you know what verlan is, it's time to work on the basics so you can master it as you continue learning French. There's no comprehensive dictionary for verlan, but there are verlan translators that you can play around with when you're learning the basics of French slang.
#1. Recognize Syllables in Verlan
French slang depends entirely on the syllables of a word, so in order to speak verlan, you need to know where each syllable is in a word. As a French language learner, this will help improve your pronunciation as you learn new words, even if they aren't in verlan.
To help you learn how to recognize syllables in French, here's a compteur de syllables (syllable counter) where you can type in whatever French word you want. It will show you where the word splits into syllables as well as the gender of the word if it's a noun.
For multi-syllable words, verlan is pretty easy. Take the word itself, for example: ver-lan. Two syllables. As you saw above, the original word is l'envers. Dividing the word into two syllables (l'en- and -vers) is easy, which means that this first step is already complete!
For single-syllable words, it can be a little more confusing. After all, when a word only has one syllable, how can you divide and reverse them? It's equally confusing when a word ends in a silent -e or the last consonant isn't usually pronounced.
In both cases, you want to guard that last consonant or silent -e and give it a sound. You'll see more of this in the second and third steps below.
#2. Reverse the Order: A Look at Multi-Syllable Words
To put a multi-syllable word in verlan, we divide it into its two syllables, reverse the order, modify the pronunciation and spelling, and we're done! Easy, right?
The short story is: That's all there is to it. Just divide the syllables, reverse them, and there's your new word in verlan! The long story, however, is that it isn't actually that easy. As you'll see below, some words have been re-verlan-ized, but that's a special case that we'll cover later. For now, here are some common words you can incorporate into your French vocabulary:
Le français → céfran (French)
Le café → féca (Coffee)
Être au parfum → être au fumpar (To be in the know)
Bloqué → kéblo (Blocked or caught)
Laisser tomber → laisser béton (Let it go)
#3. Create Syllables: A Look at Single-Syllable Words
For single-syllable words, here's how to make the verlan version.
Let's start with words that end in a silent -e. A common word in verlan like this is "femme". "Femme" is both one-syllable long and ends in a silent -e, but the word in verlan is so common that it's an easy example. Simply divide the word in half, keep the silent -e, and switch it around. Here's a visual representation (spelled phonetically):
Femme → fa-meu → meu-fa → meufa → meuf
As you can see, the -ah sound at the beginning of "femme" disappears in verlan. There's no real explanation for this other than that's just how the word evolved. Words like these are common enough, though, that you won't have to struggle to remember the rules. You'll hear them all the time when learning French.
Here are some other common single-syllable words in verlan that you should know:
Le flic → keuf (Cop)
La classe → cecla (Class)
Louche → chélou (Shady)
Fou → ouf (Crazy)
Vas-y → zyva (Go)
#4. Re-Verlan-ize Certain Words
It was hinted at above, but some words in French have been re-verlan-ized. What does this mean for a French learner? Well, it means there's a little bit more work involved with learning and mastering verlan, but it really isn't too bad. Don't let it scare you.
Again, the words that are most common in verlan are used all the time. You'll hear them as frequently, if not more frequently, than the original word in French.
Not every word has been re-verlan-ized. Only the most used words have been, so if you're worried about remembering everything, just know that only a few words have been re-verlan-ized. For the most part, knowing basic verlan will be enough to follow any conversation in French.
Re-verlan-ized words follow the same rules as verlan. Separate the word into syllables, reverse them, and put them together.
Here are re-verlan-ized words that you may encounter:
Le flic → keuf → fuek (Cop)
L'arabe → beur → reub (Arab)
La femme → meuf → feumeu (Wife; girl*)
Believe it or not, that's really it! You may hear a few other words every now and then, but aside from the three words above, you most likely won't have to worry about the re-verlan-ized version of words.
As you may have noticed, there's an asterix by the translation of meuf/feumeu. In the regular French language, "femme" would translate primarily to woman or wife. However, in verlan, the word "meuf" can mean wife or girl, especially when used in the possessive. So while you would never refer to your girlfriend as "ma femme" in French, you could refer to her as "ma meuf" and there wouldn't be any confusion.
Practice Your New French Slang
Now that you know the basics of verlan, it's time to practice! We've all heard the saying "practice makes perfect" and when it comes to French slang, every French learner knows this.
While you may not master verlan over night, practicing will help it come more naturally and soon you'll feel more comfortable using it. You can also use non-verlan French slang to help you improve your colloquial French until you feel more comfortable in verlan. To test your French slang, try watching TV series in French. In most series, you'll hear actors use slang or more familiar language than you learn in your French classes.
Before you set off to impress your French-speaking friends with your new knowledge, test yourself on the handful of words below and add them to your vocab study list:
La fête → ?
Les parents → ?
Pourri → ?
Think you got it right? See the answers down below!
La fête → une teuf (Party)
Les parents → les rempa (Parents)
Pourri → ripou (Rotten)