Learn to speak like the locals and throw some slang into your conversations
While many have pondered what makes France so unique, author Alex Quick has given form to his thoughts with his take on the topic in How to be French, co-authored with Cyn Bataille. Here in the final installment of a three-part series, he examines the use of the French language from slang to abbreviations.
KNOW YOUR ARGOT
In French, slang is known as argot. Of course, we have this word in English too, where it may sometimes be pronounced with a hard ‘t’. In English, ‘argot’ means any specialized language, slang or otherwise – so we can refer, for instance, to the argot of socio-philosophers or bookbinders. In France argot just means slang.
Verlan (backslang) is a division of argot. So is louchébem, which originated among French butchers and made its way into general parlance. In louchébem, everything begins with the letter ‘l’, and you form words by inverting existing words and adding end-syllables: so, for example, garçon is larçonguesse, monsieur is lesieurmique, and café is lafécaisse.
As always and everywhere, the purpose of argot is not merely linguistic inventiveness but concealment. Children, prisoners, thieves, etc, wish to hide information from parents, warders, the police, etc. So argot begins on the streets and works its way up. The surprise in France is quite how far it works its way up. On the grounds of general égalité, everyone in France wants to have a share in the cachet of argot, and everyone uses it, including the social elite, business leaders, politicians and so on. So one might hear a cabinet minister saying: C’est chouette, cette boum! – This party’s a blast! Je ne peux pas le blairer! – I can’t stick him! Je commence à avoir les crocs, moi – I’m getting peckish. J’ai besoin de m’en jeter un derrière la cravate – I need a drink.
Thus the streets are kept perennially busy inventing new terms to confound others.