Verlan [veyr-lahn] is a French argot (secret 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 name verlan is an example: it is derived from inverting the syllables in ‘l’envers’ [lan-ver](‘the inverse’). Different rules apply for one-syllable words, and words with more than one syllable may be verlanized in more than one way. For example, ‘cigarette’ may yield ‘garetsi’ or ‘retsiga.’

Some verlan words, such as ‘meuf,’ have become so commonplace that they have been included into the Petit Larousse (a French dictionary) and a doubly ‘verlanized’ version was rendered necessary, so the singly verlanized ‘meuf’ became ‘feumeu’; similarly, the verlan word ‘beur,’ derived from ‘arabe,’ has become accepted into popular culture such that it has been re-verlanized to yield ‘rebeu.’

Some verlan words, which are now well incorporated in common French language, have taken on their own significance, or at least certain connotations that have changed their meaning. For example, the word ‘meuf,’ which can still be used to refer to any woman, also refers to the speaker’s girlfriend, when used in the possessive form; while the original word ‘femme’ would refer to the speaker’s wife when used in the same way. Such words retain a cultural significance from the time at which they appeared in common language. Widely spread in the second half of the 20th century, ‘beur’ generally refers to first-generation immigrants from northern Africa in France. The re-verlanized word ‘rebeu’ is much more recent, and is used to refer rather to second-generation Arab immigrants in France, and their social attitude.

In theory, any word can be translated into verlan, but only a few expressions are used in everyday speech. Verbs translated into verlan cannot be conjugated easily. There is no such thing as a verlan grammar, so generally verbs are used in the infinitive, past participle or progressive form. The study of verlan is difficult as it is primarily a spoken language passed down orally, without standardized spelling.

Verlan is less a language than a way to set apart certain words. Many verlan words refer either to sex or drugs, related to the original purpose of keeping communication secret from institutions of social control. Verlan is generally limited to one or two key words per sentence. Verlan words and expressions are mixed within a more general argotique language. Verlan is used by people to mark their membership in, or exclusion from, a particular group (generally young people in the cities and suburbs). Speakers rarely create a verlan word on the fly; rather, their ability to use and understand words from an accepted set of known verlan terms allows them to be identified as part of a verlan-speaking group.

The use of coded languages like verlan is uncommon in English-speaking countries, but similar manners of speaking, such as Cockney rhyming slang, Pig Latin or ‘backslang,’ are used in English-speaking cultures (see Language game). A form of slang very similar to verlan is occasionally used in Greek and is called ‘podaná,’ itself an inverted form of ‘anápoda’ (i.e. ‘backwards’ or ‘wrong way round’); it usually involves words that are already slang by themselves. Examples of podaná include ‘tsosbá’ (inverted ‘bátsos,’ slang for ‘cop’) and ‘zakipré’ (inverted ‘prezáki,’ slang for ‘junkie’).Verlan is also very similar, if not identical, to the slang often used in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia in the Serbo-Croat languages and Macedonian. This slang, ‘šatrovački’ and sometimes labeled as the 8th case, is popular among the youth in especially Belgrade and Sarajevo. A recent trend of slang among the youth of Rio de Janeiro also resembles verlan. In the Buenos Aires slang lunfardo verlan-style words are often used, for example ‘feca’ instead of ‘cafe.’

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