Verlan is a very common argot in the French language, featuring the inversion of the syllables in a word, sometimes along with an elision for phonological matters. The name verlan itself is an example; it is derived from inverting the syllables in “l’envers”.
History of Verlan
One could believe verlan appeared with the emergence of the hip-hop movement in France, but in fact the first appearance of verlan can be dated back to the 12th century in the book “Tristan and Iseult” when Tristan used the name “Tantris” to conceal his real identity facing the Queen of Ireland. Some linguists even state that the French writer Voltaire came up with his name by inverting the syllables of the city named Airvault.
Actually, a more systematic use of verlan in oral communication appeared in the 19th century in French prisons. Like Tristan who wanted to conceal his identity or the prisoners of the 19th century who wanted to communicate discreetly, French resistants also used verlan during the German occupation of France in the early 40’s.
However, the democratization of verlan only happened during the 80’s in the French suburbs, whether it was through the” blousons noirs” (anarchist rockers) like the singer Renaud and his song “Laisse béton” or later with the rise of the hip-hop movement led by bands like NTM and their song “Pass Pass Le Oinj”.
The word “verlan” became official in 1950.
inverting and adding another sound:
mec>keumé (mec = kem + é = keumé)
sœur>reusda, reusdé (sœur = reus + da ou dé = reusda, reusdé)
deleting the final vowel in a reversed word:
mec = keume -e = keum
père = reupè – è = reup
Esthetics of Verlan
Verlan is not all about linguistic techniques, inverting and cutting syllables. Indeed, verlan has become more of an esthetical phenomena used in poems, songs and movies. Not every single word has its own verlan version. For instance, the word “gueule” , which is a very common word in French, doesn’t turn into “leugueu” because it doesn’t sound nice and catchy. As the French rapper Oxmo Puccino says, “Verlan is not a simple inversion, it has to sound right phonetically”.