Opinion: ‘The French don’t like change but slang can keep the language alive’

When it comes to their language, the French are famous for being protectionist and resistant to change. 



But while people around the world draw their impressions of the French and their attitudes towards their own language from the dramatic declarations of the Academie, there is one area of French this famous institution has no control over and perhaps don’t even really understand. 


Argot — the French word for slang — the antithesis of the puritanism represented by the Academie Francaise, “moves quickly and is part of France’s subculture”, Benjamin Valliet (see image below), a French author who has written a book on contemporary French slang called “Lexique ta mere” tells The Local. 



“The French tend to be reactionary and don’t like change. Of course, this is a stereotype — after all we did have a Revolution — but there is some truth to it,” he says. 


“Some people feel bothered by slang and it unsettles the language purists who would prefer French to be frozen in time.” 


The exact reason for this reluctance to let the language evolve naturally is hard to pinpoint, he says, adding that it could be down to a number of factors. 


“It’s partly due to a lack of understanding,” he says, adding the aversion could perhaps be “partly because argot is usually spoken by young people and it reminds older people that they’re ageing and don’t understand the words being spoken by the younger generation”.


Valliet went on to say that in the minds of many French people, slang is linked to rap and therefore gangsters, which could make them judge it more harshly. 


Then, he says, there are some who believe that everyone should live like they do. 


Valliet argues that this resistance means that French changes far less than other languages. 

A lot of French slang, Valliet explains, is made up by young people who come from deprived areas — the “dominated” in society — as a way of separating themselves from those they consider to be the “dominant” classes. 

Argot can be like a foreign language, stealing elements from English and, of course, Arabic, Valliet explains. 



But despite the underground nature of French slang, it’s likely many learners of the language are familiar with some of the more common argot words which have made the leap into normal conversation in France. 


If you live here or even if you’ve visited, you’ll probably have heard the word “meuf” which is Verlan — France’s secret “back-to-front” slang — for “femme” (woman). 


If you’ve never heard of Verlan before, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of underground code, but the examples above are such mainstays in the French language that most French people under the age of 40 wouldn’t even think twice about using them. 


And some slang even makes it into the country’s main dictionaries.  


“Slang is starting to become more mainstream which I think is a shame,” Valliet said although he added that with argot changing so quickly, words that had real slang credentials just months ago quickly become outdated. 


For example, “boloss”, a slang term to mean someone who is outdated or a bit of a moron, is now so outdated itself so anyone using it would be considered a “boloss” themselves, Valliet says. 


So for all the language learners out there, is it worth getting up-to-date with French slang?


“Not for everyday comprehension,” says Valliet. “But if you’re around teenagers a lot it will be very useful.”



Here are five French words to get you started



This is a word taken from English to mean someone who is inexperienced in a particular sphere or activity, especially when it comes to computer games.



This is a slang term for housing estate or working-class area. 


j’ai le mort (I’m dead)

This would be used by someone to mean that they are very angry. 


daron/daronne – mum/dad


un bambi – a loser





Verlan: France's backwards language you need to learn

Photo: Basilemorin/WikiCommons



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