Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kiffer grave la teuf - about French verlan and other slang

There is nothing more difficult than trying to speak slang in a foreign language. Even in my own language I am too old to follow the trends, in French, I don't even try! Even today, after twelve years married to a Frenchman, I avoid slang. Among friends I might use some words that are declared 'familier', which means familiar in the sense informal. Like bagnole instead of voiture for car, bouffer instead of manger for to eat. But this is not slang.

Maybe you hear someone talk about a mega-teuf. Then you are on to one of the oldest slang phenomenon in France, the verlan. The word verlan in itself comes from the shuffled word l'envers, which in turn means topsy-turvy, upside down - and it describes the process of creating a word in verlan. Woman = femme will become meuf backwards. Fête = party will become teuf backwards. and so on. The French talked like this even when I was young about a hundred years ago, so it is really an old tradition. Today they might go one step further, so that the shuffled word is reshuffled... so that mother = mère will become first reum and then meureu! Or the word for like that = comme ça will become first aç and then askeum and then asmeuk... you still follow?

Another kind of slang is the word kiffer, where kiffer grave means to like alot. It comes from the Arabic word kiff. In Morocco and Tunisia it means hasch and the initial meaning was to enjoy smoking and then developed into just liking something. Not to be confused with the Arabic word kifkif, which means alike, similar!

Modern slang find inspiration in many places. Rap and rock, commercials, movies, Arabic and African languages will provide ideas. You say parler 93, talk 93, which refers to the departément 93 north of Paris. It is known for the many gangs and the tough environment. If you don't live there, you look cooler talking like them!


  1. A few details.
    I guess one can say that there are different slangs.

    There's the "universal" slang, that is slang used for a long time (several decades) and by most of the population (in terms of age and social classes. Examples: "bouffer" and "bagnole". Yes, those words are slang. They are very commonly used but are still inappropriate in proper French. (familiar/informal French has more to do with dropping the "ne" in negations and stuff like that).

    Then, you have the slang that is created and used mostly by kids from the "ghettos" (esp. Parisian poor suburbs), but those slangs have usually a quite short life expectancy (about a decade, sometimes two). It usually goes that way: the expression starts in the ghetto, and becomes popular there...
    A few years later, "cool" kids - not from the ghetto - start using the expression too, and it becomes popular among them too. A few years later, the media pay attention, and start using the expression too (usually starting with TV commercials), at this point, the general population start using it, and soon after one can consider the expression "dead" as it's being used by the mainstream, and usually not properly.

    It's also why slang is very generational, one can tell the age of a person by the slang they use. Even "bagnole", I'm not too sure that kids use it that much nowadays.

    That's why your title is funny, it's not exactly the same people that would say "kiffer" "grave" and "teuf."

    Verlan is very characteristic of that. Verlan finds its origins way back in the 19th Century, as its ancestor is the "Louchebem" (i.e. the Parisian butcher secret language), it stayed under the radar until the early 80's when Parisian kids from poor suburbs started to use it and it became "their" language and it stayed that way during most of the 80's. It's during the late 80's that it slowly spread among the general population, and in the 90's, the media and all would use it all the time to the point that in the 2000's it's almost dead. Except for a few words that are too "ingrained" (even the word "beur" is Verlan originally, not it's standard French), Verlan is mostly dead, I'm not sure anybody under 30 still uses it.
    On the other hand, "kiffer" appeared in the 90's and became mainstream in the 2000's. I lived abroad in 1998-2005 and in 1998 I have never heard the word "kiffer", in 2005 everyone seemed to be using it and I had no idea what it meant at first (during the same time in 1998 Verlan was everywhere, in 2005, it was much more rare). Today, in 2010, I don't hear kiffer that much anymore, I think the word is on its way out.


  2. Bon là je suis très peu au point pour le parler Verlan quoique je commence à m'y mettre car j'entends les filles (11ans) utilisées (mes oreilles me font mal quand je les entends) quelques mots.

  3. En plus, si on commence a brasser un ep's gadz, y vont chiquer queud's...
    J'imagine que ca les ferait crocher lar's.



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