Background information

During a rough session of interrogation in prison, the police have seriously wounded Abdel, a young man of Arab descent living in one of the Parisian suburb housing projects.

The young unemployed living in the same "cité" (ticé in verlan) protest and attack the police. In the confusion, one of the policemen drops his gun. Vinz, a friend of Abel's, picks it up and decides to take revenge. He has "the hatred". His friends, Said and Hub, try to disssuade him ...

Comments by Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
“Maybe you think you’ve seen it before: Three racially divergent boyz in the hood bang heads with the riot police in a housing project where unemployment, drugs, violence and hatred are facts of life. Nothing new here, exept that this hood is just outside Paris. This issues in this bonfire of a movie transcend geographical barriers to speak a universal language of unrest.

Prepare to be jolted by the intensity that writer, director and co-editor Mathieu Kassovitz, 28, brings to a plot that uncoils in one agonizing 24-hour period. Hate jumps off the screen. Saïd is an Arab, Hubert is black, and Vinz is a Jew. Each needs to vent his frustration about police brutality that has landed another friend in the hospital. Boxing is Hubert’s outlet. Vinz does impressions of Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver”. 

Verlan is the French expression “à l’envers” (meaning backwards) pronounced backwards as in “vers-l’en” or “verlan” . Verlan is a popular slang in which standard French spellings or syllables are reversed or recombined, or both.

Thus the standard greeting "Bonjour, ça va?" (How are you?)  becomes "Jourbon, ça av?" "une fête" (a party) has become "une teuf"; the word for woman or wife, “femme”, has become “meuf”; the word "arabe" has become "beur"; a café is a “féca”; and the cité (city) is la “ticé”.

Within a couple of decades, verlan has spread from the peripheral housing projects of France's poorest immigrants, heavily populated with Africans and North African Arabs, and gained widespread popularity among young people across France. They have invented a culture that is in between the culture of their parents, which they no longer possess, and the French culture to which they don't have complete access. Verlan has seeped into film dialogue, advertising campaigns, French rap and hip-hop music, the mainstream media. It has even made it into some of the country's leading dictionaries.

A language of alienation that has, paradoxically, also become a means of integration, verlan expresses France's love-hate relationship with its immigrant community and has begun to attract a number of scholarly studies.

"Speaking backwards becomes a metaphor of opposition, of talking back," writes Natalie Lefkowitz, a professor of French applied linguistics at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., and the author of "Talking Backwards, Looking Forwards: The French Language Game Verlan" (Gunter Narr, 1991), which, when it was published, was one of the first major studies of verlan.

But along with its subversive element, Ms. Lefkowitz explained in an interview, "for the young urban professional, verlan is a form of political correctness expressing solidarity with and awareness of the immigrant community at a time of anti-immigrant politics."

“In a country obsessed with linguistic purity, it turns a stigma--ethnic and religious differences,non-French identity, nonstandard speech--into a positive emblem, a form of covert prestige,"Ms. Lefkowitz said. Verlanizing words, she and others say, changes their tone and meaning. "When you say téçi for cité, it is a way of expressing affection, like saying homeland," she added.

Quoted  from an article in the New York Times
Backward Runs French. Reels the Mind.
August 17, 2002


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