Dare to try out your French slang

Do you have the confidence to try French slang in everyday conversation?

The French language is in continual evolution and its argot reflects the country’s rich heritage. Learning when to use slang can be tricky, however. Connexion spoke to Jennifer Rowell Gastard, an American language specialist who has lived in France for more than 20 years

French colloquialisms have a variety of roots. The most famous of these is verlan; a cryptic language which inverts French words. It originated in the banlieues in the 1980s and as time has gone on, some words have undergone double inversions, for example mec (guy) has gone to keum. You may hear meuf and nana from femme (woman) but Jennifer recommends avoiding these words, which can be derogatory.

In 2013, Abdelkarim Tengour, from Massy, a suburb South of Paris, collated the expressions used by young French people and published an urban dictionary called Tout l’argot des banlieues. It is a younger, urban demographic that employs such language, Jennifer says. From the time that Algeria was under French rule, Arabic words have been absorbed into the language. Bled means village and kiffer (to love) comes from the word kif, for hashish.

Technology, popular culture and regional languages are other sources of familiar expressions, Jennifer added. “In the South when it is humid outside, we say ‘ça pegue,’” she says. This comes from the Occitan word pego which means coller, ‘to stick.’

Similarly, technology has increased the number of anglicismes used in French. Jennifer cites uploader, hot dog and des boots as examples. The French President is a fan; President Macron’s staff famously refer to him as le boss and his own discourse is peppered with English words. He has previously described France as a start-up nation with an économie disruptive. Thanks to social media, le selfie is now in the French dictionary while hashtag has been translated as mot-dièse.

Several words mean the same thing

The French have many words with the same meaning. Do not be surprised if you hear various words for money on a daily basis. Jennifer gives the example of balles, blé, des sous and l'oseille which are all interchangeable for euros or argent. Equally a car can be la bagnole or la caisse in place of voiture. Often children (les enfants) are referred to as les gamins or les gosses – think kids as opposed to children. Instead of asking someone how are you: ça va? You may hear ça roule? Allez, c’est parti or on y go are frequently used, meaning ‘let’s go.’ These are examples of argot which are perfectly acceptable and you will hear them dropped into daily conversation all the time.

There are sometimes subtle differences to be aware of. For example, if you are going to make a meal together, you may say on va faire une bouffe ensemble. “As a noun, une bouffe (meal) is commonly used but the verb bouffer can come across more aggressive,” Jennifer said. The French have quite a few vulgar expressions so checking with friends which phrases should be avoided is important. Also listen carefully because slang is an entirely oral part of language. “You never see it written down” she says, which can lead to some malentendus.

Don’t be afraid to try it

Mastering slang is about “getting back into that mentality of a child where you don’t care if you look silly or not” said Jennifer. The best way to figure out which familiar expressions work and which do not is simply to test out the phrases you have picked up from people around you. Generally, adults may use slang in an exaggerated or passionate context, when they are complaining or angry about something, she added.

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