Rachel in Paris

Rachel, a senior President’s Scholar majoring in political science and foreign languages in Dedman College, with a minor in English, is spending spring break 2010 doing research in Paris. She plans to study French slang by conducting interviews with speakers of “Verlan,” a language game involving word inversion.

Some answers, more questions

My final interviews were as instructive as my first ones, and I was even able to have impromptu conversations about Verlan with an adorable group of five 13-year-old boys who go to a bilingual school and two girls from Congo and Algeria.

I also had time to go to a couple of Parisian parties the night before my flight left. It was great to see Paris at night, and to speak French in a casual setting. It was funny, though, because nobody believed that I was actually studying Verlan. For them, it’s just a funny word game that they play – and sometimes they aren’t even conscious of the fact that they are using it.

There may also have been some confusion due to the fact that saying “Je suis ici pour etudier le Verlan” can be translated as either “I’m here to study about Verlan” or “I’m here to learn to speak Verlan.” I think people thought I was in Paris to learn to speak like a French gangster.

Now that I’m back in Dallas, the most interesting (although less adventurous) part of my project begins. I am eager to begin listening to my recordings, interpreting the data, and organizing my findings into meaningful categorizations. As I reflect, however, I’m realizing that, while my research has answered a few of my questions, it has opened the door to many more. I could easily spend a lifetime studying the slang language of Parisian kids.

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Lessons in graffiti

I’ve done several interviews since I last wrote, all of which have been very instructive. One of the most interesting realizations, for me, has been in discovering how different Verlan usage is among different groups of people (ages, race, gender) across Paris. It often becomes a kind of “inside joke” for a group of friends to use certain words or phrases.

I also talked to some bilingual English/French kids on the lawn outside of the Eiffel Tower, which introduced me to another interesting realization in my research. The French negation is formed using two parts, “ne” and “pas,” the second of which is actually pronounced “pa” – the final “s” is silent. So, since Verlan is primarily a spoken phenomenon, the Verlanization of that would be “ap.”

However, these kids actually used the Verlan of the written form, including the “s” sound, making it “aps.” It may not sound very revolutionary, but it provides an interesting window to how Verlan is represented in the brain. I’ll have to do more book research on this when I get back, but I think since it is primarily oral, it is mostly a right-brain process. Visualizing the actually letters of the word transfers the operation to the left brain. So, for these kids, it must be represented in both? I’m not sure, but I have some more data which may be useful in sorting through that.

rZarbii%20Grafitti.jpg Along the same lines, while I was walking I found some graffiti on the wall including a word in Verlan. The word “bizarre” (English cognate) was written in its Verlan form as “zarbii.”

REnglish%20Grafitti.jpg I looked for other Verlan words in graffiti, but I wasn’t able to find any, though the grafitti itself was interesting. Still, the fact that I found one written word is showing that, though it is oral, there must be some sort of visualization of spelling in the brain of speakers. Also strange is that the end of the word was spelled with two “i’s,” which is not in the Standard French equivalent.

REiffel%20Tower-1.jpg Anyway, enough of the boring linguistic data. I was also able to do a little sightseeing yesterday, including visiting a soup shop that my roommate at SMU recommended to me (thanks Charanya!). Besides serving absolutely delicious food, the shop owners were very friendly and kindhearted (they gave soup to three beggars who came in while I was there). I had carrot soup, a sandwich, and some incredibly decadent chocolate fudge.

Next I saw the Eiffel tower, which was really neat, but not quite as big as I was expecting. Still, I was glad to see the Parisian icon. According to a tour guide, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most easily recognizable landmarks for the world’s population; but, interestingly, it was only meant to be a temporary structure for the entrance to an exhibition. Everyone liked it so much, though, that it has not been torn down.

RParc%20des%20Buttes%20Chaumont.jpg I also went to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, in the northeast section of Paris. It was so pretty! I felt almost as if I was no longer in the city, but there was still an interesting juxtaposition of trees and skyscrapers, which you can see in my pictures.

I can’t believe I’m leaving tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to transcribing some of my recorded conversations and interpreting data – this has proved to be a very interesting project!

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Insiders’ and outsiders’ views

rSacre%20Coeur%20.jpg Yesterday, was a really busy day and so interesting!

I first visited a contact in Montparnasse – that’s one of the more affluent parts of Paris. He had a lot of interesting insight into Verlan from a semi-outsider’s perspective. Apparently, there are common words that almost everyone uses, but then there are some words that only the “gangster” kids can use.

Most useful for my project was when he talked about how he thinks about Verlan words. He said for him, there are two types of words: 1) those words that are so widely used that he no longer thinks of the standard French equivalent, and 2) words that are inseparable from the standard French word from which they are derived.

After chatting with him for a couple of hours (he was such a big help!), I went back to the hostel and took a quick nap. Then, I talked to one of the staff members of the hostel about how I could find more contacts who use Verlan. I really needed to speak with people living in the banlieu (the French equivalent of “inner-city”), but it’s not really a good idea for me to go alone.

Anyway, the hostel staff member was really helpful and introduced me to two Tunisian immigrants from the banlieu (they called it the “cite”). What was most interesting about speaking with them was that they did not use a lot of the common Verlan words used by Parisians in the center of Paris. It seems as if young people in the banlieu create the Verlan words, and continue using them until they become popular in Paris. Once that happens, the original users abandon the “stolen” word and find something new and different.

After speaking with them, I was thanking the hostel staff-member who helped me and then was approached by a woman and invited to have drinks with her and her two companions. It turns out they were in the area for an art show; one of the two men with her was a budding painter; the other was the webmaster of his website, and she was the manager for the show. They showed me his work, which was actually quite good! He was very talented. However, some of his paintings had a quasi-religious theme that, for me, was a little strange. For example, one of his paintings was a portrayal of a naked Madonna (yes, I did clarify with him – it was Madonna as in Jesus’ mother, not Madonna the pop star).

In all, they were very nice, and interesting to speak with. Plus, I got a little more “outsider” insight into Verlan.

Moulin%20Rouge.JPG I went to sleep after that and woke up this morning ready for some sightseeing before my two interviews for tonight.

Cemetary%20in%20Montmartre.JPG I visited Montmartre (and a cemetery there – photo right), Amelie’s abode, and the home of the famous Moulin Rouge (photo left) and Paris’ red-light district. The woman I met last night told me it was very “1950s,” but I had trouble seeing that amidst the cabarets and nightclubs. I’m getting ready now to meet two of my research contacts at a bar in Paris’ 15th arrondissement.

Though I usually prefer the beauty of the outdoors (mountains, picturesque landscapes), I’m really beginning to fall in love with Paris! I’ve even been practicing the Parisian scowl that everyone here walks around with – those especially guilty are the too-tall, too-thin Parisian women.

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Making connections

Seine.jpg It’s 1:11 a.m., and I’m sitting up in the bar at the hostel, surrounded by more than slightly intoxicated 20-somethings from around the world, but I really wanted to type up the results from meeting with my first contact. I’ve gotten some unexpected results, but they are still very interesting.

For those of you who know some French, or any other romance language that has gender for nouns and adjectives, part of my research is focused on how agreement works when words are Verlanized. There seem to be a couple of different sets of rules operating in Verlan, but I’m not sure exactly what they are yet. I’m looking forward to getting different perspectives from my other interviewees, but I already have some tentative conclusions and hypotheses … in all, my first meeting was very interesting and very successful! My thanks to Nico and Esme for the help!!

Before meeting with Nico this evening, I ate dinner with a friend’s sister who is studying in Paris. It was great to hear her perspective on French life and French food especially. I had “boudin,” which I think is a type of blood sausage, but I’m not quite sure. It was delicious!

My friend’s sister also told me about someone she is acquainted with who did his senior thesis on slang within the Arab French population in Paris. She said she would help me get in contact with him, which will be very useful for my project – I am very interested in hearing what he found!

r-Notre%20Dame.jpg This morning, before my “work,” I did a bit of sightseeing. I went to Mass at Notre Dame, which was absolutely beautiful. I always think it’s strange, though, to go to Mass at big, famous cathedrals because with so many tourists walking in and out, I feel a little like I’m on display – even though I’m sure everyone is looking at the Cathedral and not the Mass attendees.

After Mass, I went on a whirlwind 3.5-hour guided tour of some of Paris’ major sights. It was really interesting for me to see La Place des Concords, the square where the guillotine was housed during the French Revolution. It was so strange to be standing where such a cruel operation had taken place – and all in the name of freedom!

Speaking of the worst of human nature, I found out that in the late 1800s, in the Grand Palais – one of Paris’ famous expedition halls – they once had an exhibition of humans in their “natural habitat.” It was a human zoo.

R-Louvre.jpg On a lighter note, I saw the “invisible pyramid” in the Louvre, and the Pont des Arts, which is home to dozens of padlocks left by lovers who fastened them there and together threw the lock into the Seine. Apparently, during Valentine’s Day, it was a popular place.

r-PontdesArts.jpg I also saw the building where the Academie Francaise is located. Staffed by “Les Immortels,” the Academie is responsible for preserving French as pristine as they can. That means ridding it of Anglicisms and slang – Verlan included.

Paradoxically, since the immortals are so concerned with preserving French as it “should” be, there is a huge divergence between dictionary French and actual spoken French. Street slang, Verlan included, is often seen as a protest against French elitism. Fight as they may, the immortals cannot reign in the popularity of Verlan among many Parisian youth. But, thank goodness they haven’t – otherwise we wouldn’t have Verlan as a window into how language operates.

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Arrival in Paris

12 p.m.

I’m a little travel-weary and sleep-deprived, but I’m in Paris! This is where I will be for the next seven days, conducting interviews and trying to find out as much as I can about the French slang known as Verlan.

I found my hostel where I will be staying for the night, and the front-desk workers have been very helpful in getting me situated – as is usually the case with hostel staff. The hostel is pretty far north of the city center, so I have to decide if I want to stay here for more than one night.

It would be convenient not to have to move my stuff, but it would also be convenient to be closer to the city center. However, my research contacts are pretty spread out around the city, so it may not matter where I stay. I will meet with my first contact tomorrow, a friend of a friend who speaks Verlan.

At this point, it may be necessary to explain a little about my project. I am studying a type of French slang involving syllable inversion of words. So, the French word “femme,” which means woman, becomes “meuf.” Here are links to two articles from BBC and the NYT giving a pretty thorough characterization of the linguistic phenomenon: Read more here and here.

Existing research on Verlan has focused on the social origins of the slang (it was born out of the marginalized immigrant populations in the suburbs of Paris), but I will be studying Verlan from more of a formal linguistic approach. I want to know more about how speakers form Verlan words and whether the words are merely entering French as new vocabulary, or whether they are actively combining with French grammar rules or even creating some new Verlan grammar rules to follow.

7:26 p.m.

I’m still awake! I went on a little run to see the neighborhood, and bought a French baguette. I know the French are known for their baguettes, but the renown is not wrongly given – French baguettes are amazing! There’s something about the texture that makes them so different from baguettes you can get in the US – crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. Then, there’s also the endearing way French people carry them under their arms …

I can’t stay up any longer so I’m going to go to sleep soon and wake up tomorrow ready to go!

Even though I’m not in the city center, Paris still feels magical. I’m sitting in a cafe right beside the hostel. Through the huge windows I can see the canal that runs through the 19th arrondissement, lined with lights, and the traffic of cars and people drifting by.

A demain!

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