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Nr. 95, 07.07.2018  voriger  Übersicht  weiter

Destiwt Dorlw – Twisted World

The creative use of language and its rules is very popular in France, where wordplay is a natural part of everyday language.


Foto: pur.pur

Keuf, meuf, keum: what sounds like nonsense for French learners is common everyday speech for native speakers – words with twisted syllables. »The French love language games like this,« knows Professor Elmar Eggert. The expert in Romance languages has investigated youth and colloquial language in France. The director of the Institute of Romance Studies at Kiel University is particularly impressed with Verlan, a playful language in which language boundaries are broken and new words created artificially. »This is widespread among young people in France. The syllables of well-known words are inverted and – partly – supplemented with vowels,« explained Eggert. Thus, le flic (the policeman) becomes le keuf, la femme (the woman) becomes la meuf and le mec (the guy) becomes le keum. Even the name Verlan is an example of Verlan: it comes from the French à 'lenvers (the inverse, or back-to-front).

Elmar Eggert. Photo: Ruske

This form of word twisting has existed for decades. Previously, Verlan was used by crooks to confuse the police. From the end of the 1970s, the young people in the Parisian suburbs discovered this form of wordplay, and used it to distinguish themselves from adults. However, this only worked for a while. In the meantime, a number of the terms have become part of the colloquial language, and are used by many people, from musicians such as the Belgian rapper Stromae (Alors on danse), whose name is the Verlan word for Maestro, right up to the higher echelons of society. Meanwhile, young people are constantly evolving their game of differentiation: by now, existing colloquially-used Verlan words are being twisted and shortened further – for example, beur (from arabe, a French person of Arabic descent) has become reubeu. »This makes understanding the spoken language even more difficult for non-native speakers,« continued Eggert.

One reason for enjoying wordplay and language games in all circles is the strong awareness of language among the French, as well as the desire to use the language creatively and bend its rules, according to Eggert. Wordplay is used in advertising, finds its way into the literature, and is part of everyday language. »For French men and women, a person’s esprit and education are reflected in how they speak,« said the linguist. »Those who take pride in themselves are not vulgar in conversation, but use language games – like sentences with several levels of meaning. In the assumption that their counterpart will understand the intended meaning.« This is supported by the fact that spoken and written language is very different. A form of jeux de mots (play on words) is, for example, the interchanging of letters or syllables. Instead of an inelegant expression such as le trou de mon cul (»kiss my ass!«), language-conscious French will switch the »r« from one place to another, and use the similar-sounding but nonsensical expression le tout de mon cru.

Wordplay of this nature can be found in many of the well-known satire magazines such as Charlie Hebdo or Le Canard enchaîné. It is thus not surprising that after the attack on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, the phrase Je suis Charlie (»I am Charlie«) was coined as a creative expression of deep, shared anguish. »That sentence spread around the world,« said Eggert.

Even if the status and importance of language games and wordplay are particularly high in France, they can also be found in other countries. »For example in Buenos Aires – and there only in certain areas – the young people’s language Vesre (from reves, reverse) is spoken,« said the Romanist Eggert. This is similar to Verlan, but unlike in France, it has not yet been thoroughly investigated. »Living language can never be fully explored,« explained the professor. Because the young constantly re-invent their own language. In France, Anglicisms and Arabisms are increasingly becoming part of the youth language, which they are constantly developing further – beyond the boundaries of the language rules.

Jennifer Ruske
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