There is an article in today’s NY Times about verlan, the French backwards slang (verlan is verlan for l’envers ‘the reverse’). Well and good; it’s an interesting subject. But after a lead-in defining the term, the article goes on:

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. It 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.

Ah, so it’s some newfangled thing, a product of those strange Arab immigrants! Except it’s not. As they eventually mention, in a tossed-off sentence in the seventh graf, “The first documented uses of Verlan date to the 19th century, when it was used as a code language among criminals, said the French scholar Louis-Jean Calvet.” Then it’s back to the immigrants and their entertaining ways, so beloved of reporters the world over.

This is just silly. Verlan is a venerable form of inner-city slang comparable to the Cockney rhyming-slang of London; it is in no way new, not even to “the attention of a wider public” (which they claim discovered it in the 1980s). I knew about it when I was first studying French forty years ago, and it was not considered new then. Of course it’s been used by criminals and defiant youth; these are prime users of slang everywhere. And of course immigrants (in this case North African Arabs) are represented in both groups. To make that the focus of the article is ridiculous… and sadly inevitable, given the blinders that come with being a reporter.

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