Reverse speaking? C’est ouf!


Slang is an important way for social groups to stress their cultural identity. Also, some slangs can be used to convey secret information within a community, without outsiders understanding what they are talking about. How does this work? Here, we look at an example from French and try to understand how slang words are learned and used.

When I moved to Paris years ago, I had my first encounter with the French language. There, I shared the apartment with a Parisien and I became fascinated by his language. My friend was really into rap, and into showing me the beauty and malleability of French. Like other romance languages, French is a syllable-timed language: each syllable has the same duration, regardless whether it is stressed or not. This characteristic is the core of verlan, a language game used to make speech incomprehensible to untrained listeners. Verlan is about reversing the order of syllables within a word, by following strict rules. For example, français [fʁɑ̃sɛ] becomes céfran [sefʁɑ̃], and the same happens for verlan, which is the reverse of l’envers (“the opposite”)!

The verlan rose in the French sub-cultures during the 70s as a secret language among the vibrant melting-pot of Paris’ banlieues and exploded with the rise in popularity of rap music in the 80s. As other slangs, verlan aims both at concealing the message from those who do not know the code and stressing the cultural identity of the speakers. When used, only some words are disguised. These are the unlawful or risky words that must be hidden in the public space. Most of them refer to drugs, friendship and shady situations. In this perspective, slangs like this are akin to primitive cryptographic systems.

For a (psycho)linguist, it is very exciting to notice that the verlan not only transforms the syllable structure of common words, but shifts their meanings too. When reversed, common words acquire new meanings that reflect the values of the language community. Let’s look at an example: fou means fool in standard French, but when verlanised to ouf! shifts to a rather positive meaning, like cool! awesome! or exceptional!. Thus, verlan is not only about concealing but also enriching what the speakers communicate. Its words are much more than reversed French words. Rather, they should be considered as different words, with an unconventional etymology.

Slangs are tools for the community, and we can have a glimpse of how they are used by looking at a report by Alena Podhorná-Polická:

“It seems that the youngs learn the verlan words in batches, without paying much attention to the process used for generating them. […] A young immigrant will be more familiarized with the verlanised words than with their French equivalent, because of his necessity of adapting to his social network rather than to the school’s authorities.”

In the report, the social role of the slang stands out, and the previous quote leads us into another intriguing aspect. How do the verlanised words relate to their upfront equivalents? Psycholinguistic researchers assume that humans have a mental dictionary (the mental lexicon) where each word has an entry. So, are there two different entries in the mental dictionary for femme and the verlanised meuf -woman- like we do have for chat and cat? Or do the speakers reverse the standard French words every time they verlanise it? For common verlan words, it is likely that the word has gained an entry because it is retrieved so frequently. But is this also the case for verlan words that are less common, like words created for rap songs?

Lo and behold, verlan leads us into a compelling scientific question about all sorts of ways of playing with words, like reversing the syllables, reading backwards and composing words. Compound words are interesting examples. We use them all the time when we speak, in the verbs, adjectives and nouns. Some of them are common, like car-park, darkness or globalization while others are less used, like cellar-door. When using these compound words, as well as for verlan, we have to harness our language machinery if we don’t have an entry in our mental dictionary. Speakers compose these words on-the-fly, starting from the basic blocks they have in the lexicon. Intuitively, accessing words with this strategy costs more time compared to when the words are already in the mental dictionary. However, it does not require any additional learning and as you may have experienced, adding a word to our mental dictionary takes time and effort.

The more a word is commonly used in a language, the more frequently we are exposed to it, and the easier it is to learn it. We could deduce that frequently used compound or verlan words are likely to be stored and retrieved from our mental dictionary, and less common ones are likely to be created on the spot. However, researchers at Max Planck in Nijmegen have shown that it isn’t as simple as this! It is not the commonness of the whole compound word that dictates the speed and ease with which the word is retrieved from the mental dictionary, but how common the parts of the compounds themselves are. For example, in Dutch market-woman and market-stall are equally common words, but because woman is more common than stall, you will be faster to retrieve market-woman than market-stall.

The question is whether this also applies to verlan. Does the commonness of the syllables that compose the word have any particular role? Or, is it just the commonness of the reversed word that determines how easy it is to retrieve the verlan word? We do not actually know, but it could be the next experiment to try out. Or better, the next perimentex!


Read further
More about the rules of verlan: Link
– Podhorná-Polická, A. (2006). Les aspects stylistiques de la verlanisation. Link
– Bien, H., Levelt, W. J., & Baayen, R. H. (2005). Frequency effects in compound production. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(49), 17876-17881. Link


Writer: Alessio Quaresima
Editor: Naomi Nota
Dutch translation: Leah van Oorschot
German translation: Natascha Roos
Final editing: Merel Wolf