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Babblings from France

or Babel in the Île-de-France

Translated by Mary O’Neill

Marc Hatzfeld

Today more than ever the language issue, which could glide about gracefully between pleasure in sense and pleasure in the senses, is being seized upon for political purposes and exploited by political concerns. Everything that has happened can be predicated on the concept of nation-state, a symbolic object, radical in its day, which was assigned the task of consolidating the fragmented political power of the time. During those long centuries stretching from the end of the Middle Ages to the close of the Ancien Régime, this triumphant political logic sought to establish a link between nation, language and religion. It was especially true of the relationship between nation and religion to the east of the Rhine, for example; west of the Rhine, it was truer where language is concerned. From Villers-Cotterêts* on, language – operating almost coercively – served as an instrument of political unification. The episodic alternation between an imperial style that was both permissive and varied when it came to morals and the national, homogeneous and monolithic style caused constant shifts in emphasis in this relationship between language and political power. In France, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes put the correlation between nation and religious system into perspective, bringing language even more to the fore as a marker of national unity, a language which, as public property, was soon entitled to protection by an institution of the State. Within this context and from this chain of events, the concept of a solid, subject people emerged in the 18th century. It was skilfully managed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who saw in it an opportunity to trump the sovereign, the royal holder of a singular power, in the name of that other, fictional, singularity. All that was subsequently required was to define territory at the institutional level. From then on, the idea that the allied forces of people, nation and language construct the same collective history was established with the vigour of a campaign.

What we see as a result is this curious emergence of language itself as a concept. A fiction that, from a very great height, overlooks a cultural reality which is infinitely more flexible and mobile on the ground encourages each nation to establish borders, to define itself sometimes, and without doubt to organize itself. A nation basically affirms itself through its language. While we in Europe enjoy as many ways of speaking as there are localities and occupations, there are administrative and symbolic demands to fabricate the fantasy of a language which clerks and writers eventually appropriate for themselves. It is these who, in the wake of the politicians, help to eliminate the variety of ways people have of expressing themselves and of understanding one another. Some scholars, falling into what they fail to see is a highly politicized trap, complete this process by constructing a scientific corpus highly susceptible to mathematical influences, taking first de Saussure’s and then Jakobson’s reasoning as their starting points. This corpus relies on a highly malleable, mobile, elastic reality to develop, paradoxically enough, the compact, structured concept that is “language” (Jacques Lacan), henceforth enclosed within the system that eventually becomes linguistics.

This is the intellectual backdrop against which people from ever more distant lands arrive in a country like France from the 1920s and, in rapidly increasing numbers, the 1960s onwards. They bring with them customs, perspectives, mentalities and languages, all plainly at odds with the monolithic conception of language. The clash is violent enough to provoke vigorous demands for this language alone to be spoken. It is now acknowledged as the only language, the one people must use or face sanctions. Any misuse of the official means of communication becomes a moral failing, a breach of the law that binds people, nation, language and destiny together with surprising rigidity. This is to a large extent where we still are, now, at the beginning of the 21st century. The housing estates of the banlieue are home to a shimmering diversity of cultural and linguistic imports and, in a political context where the nation-state is losing ground as new forms of political organization pertaining more to the logic of empire are on the rise, the issue of language surreptitiously emerges once more. It is not so much a confrontation between the official French language and other languages as a fundamental questioning of the very idea of language, as the emergence even of other linguistic practices, albeit in embryonic form.

The first manifestation of this revival of linguistic diversity is associated with the constant flow from outside, from places where language has maintained its beautiful, rippling malleability. According to custom in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, each cultural grouping (called “ethnic groups” for want of a better term), each clan, let’s say, speaks its own language. Even “language” is often a way of referring to these differentiations. And, contrary to what we might imagine in our part of the world, people mingle freely since marriages regularly and casually cross the boundaries of clan membership. In Africa, it is often the case that mother and father speak different languages and that an adoptive mother or a foster brother speaks yet another, while a lingua franca is essential in this village here or on that route there. So it is not unusual for five-year olds to use five or six dialects in a day, depending on whom they are speaking to. This is very much what people in pre-war Alexandria used to do: they spoke Greek to the grocer, Armenian to the tailor, English to the civil servant, Jews spoke French among themselves, Italian was used with the armourer and people spoke Arab of course with the fellahin peasants.

This understanding of the multiple functions of language has been spreading in the housing estates of the banlieue for some time now with a new fluency. There are still the occasional uptight schoolteachers and ingratiating social workers who earnestly encourage parents to “speak French at home” with their children, using cheap psychobabble in support of their arguments. But more and more parents from black Africa and North Africa have the self-confidence to treat this linguistic narrow-mindedness dressed up as a moral good with derision and, while they’re at it, have a good laugh at the Europeans who are so uncomfortable speaking anything other than the official language of their Mums and Dads. Just as they wear the traditional boubou with great panache and continue to carry their children on their backs like mothers in the old country, African mothers talk to their children in Bambara and Soninké. There is also a reversal of trends in the discourse of official and professional environments. Health professionals, educators and social workers are happy to encourage the spread of exotic languages. The way in which this penetration of linguistic variation is being legitimized also affects people from the Caribbean, the Maghreb, Poland and of course all the different Chinese immigrants who cannot possibly speak French at home. The revival of Kabyle in Algeria is finding unexpected support in certain housing estates. While school is still the site of an almost total linguistic exclusivism, the same cannot be said of the street, or of the shopping precincts or bistros. The family is often home to true diversity, with relationships between the generations being maintained in vernacular languages, while brothers and sisters are more and more inclined, at home at least, to communicate with each other in the language of their homeland. The attractiveness of their native languages is enhanced by travel, political opinion and a rekindling of pride.

This is a loophole which is exploited not by a new suburban language of the banlieue but by an abrasive relationship to language that carries within it the seeds of radicality. Let’s start by looking at vocabulary. In the staffroom of a suburban secondary school, teachers assured of their superior knowledge are driven to despair by the language of the youths – and the girls too. The impoverished, coarse vocabulary of “the kids from the estates” are gently (or not so gently) mocked and spicy anecdotes about students’ mistranslations and misinterpretations abound, not to mention the endless spelling “errors” so hilarious that you’d split your sides laughing. All of this is true: poverty and vulgarity and worse again, if that’s what it takes. The vocabulary of the children from the estates, like that of their elders and distant forebears, is repeatedly punctuated with brilliant expressions tirelessly exhorting so-and-so to “fuck off”, “get stuffed”, “go fuck your mother”, or “suck my dick” and other equally specific sexual or scatological recommendations. However, we ought to remember that, behind the screen of what adults in their concern for propriety quite rightly refer to as “vulgarity”, it is actually the common people who are the subject of scorn, the lower classes whose language has always, and not without considerable delight, welcomed sexual references as a way of giving vent to their desires or of softening them, of greedily playing with them and even using language to enjoy them a little. In their haughtiness, critics of vulgarity refuse to acknowledge that this type of speech is the expression of a popular philosophy, which articulates a view of humanity that interprets the world in its own way. According to this world view, humanity has not completely shaken off its animal nature; teasing one another with a kind of vicious tenderness about love, desire, social and sexual encounters and future pleasures is an enjoyable pastime. Those teachers’ jokes about vulgarity could also be the prudish reactions of a social class that prefers to deal with the endlessly difficult issue of sex by relying on makeshift solutions drawn from psychoanalysis or the prison environment, rather than availing of the subtle effects of an uninhibited, unconstrained speech. It is as yet unclear who is right in this dispute, but I would suggest that a little less contempt would be no bad thing.

As for the spelling errors, they show that if “orthography is a mandarin”** as the situationists suggested in 1968, it is because language is above all something spoken and by definition uncontrolled, untamed. Wherever they come from, many of the inhabitants of the housing estates belong to these oral cultures; they get involved through language, and set greater store by spoken words that take flight than by written words that remain static. They simply love talking. And in this purely oral exercise where language is liberated from the burden of written convention, beyond academic restrictions, there are games of verbal artistry to be found, the likes of which have not been seen since those great Occitanian poetry competitions, the Jeux Floraux.

There are three types of verbal artistry related specifically to spoken language, which people in the banlieues deploy with gusto. The first of these is called the dig. The dig is a short, very sharp verbal jab directed at a target by a casual speaker in a display of quick-fire humour. People used to say “mettre en boîte”, meaning “to take the mickey (out of someone)”; in the south of France, they’re more likely to say “chambrer”, i.e. “to tease (someone)”; in the housing estates, it’s “vanner”: “to slag (someone)”***. You trap your opponent/friend in a verbal net, then you loose a well-aimed dart at the unfortunate target. The dig hurts, but above all it makes people laugh. When it comes unexpectedly or after a time-lag, it takes a person completely by surprise, leaving them without a comeback. The dig represents the sudden appearance of the absurd in a hyper-civilized and highly-regulated yet sordid world. It’s a sidelong glance at reality. Within certain groups, the boys slag each other non-stop; it’s a game that leaves few marks if played skilfully. It is frequently enjoyed not just by the young men but by the (sometimes sharp-tongued) women and girls too, as well as workers during their breaks and pupils in the school playground.

Verbal sparring is really just a longer-lasting dig; more precisely, it’s a dig that provokes a riposte or one that is extended. Once the exchange involves several players, a duel of words ensues and the spectators await the outcome of lightning exchanges of biting verbal jousting that sparkle with metaphor, semantic inversion, unsuspected imagery and situational comedy. It’s partly and quite frequently a matter of getting one up on the other person, but sparring is more than just an exercise in single combat. It is initially successful when the listeners, who are there to be impressed after all, are made to laugh; beyond laughter, though, the aim of sparring is to earn the audience’s knowing approval of the phenomenal oral and intellectual prowess of the combatants. But sparring depends above all for its success on a shared view of the world’s essential absurdity, a view that is fierce and at the same time sharp-witted. In actual fact, it’s the world around them that is the butt of the two or more players’ savage humour; their target is often other people, those impossibly distant others who have not the slightest clue about who we are, any more than they have about life, youth, what we’re actually doing here at all; the others, those pathetic “fools” whose instinct for humiliation is repaid in equal measure by the mockery specially reserved for them.

The third linguistic device manipulated with great agility in the banlieue is slam. Originating in the black ghettos of the United States and readily adopted by corresponding social environments, slam is the verbal equivalent of a door slamming. It’s just a domesticated version of the preceding devices and one that’s just a tiny bit elitist at that. Just as towards the end of the Middle Ages the troubadours merrily displayed their powers of improvisation, slammers too are expected to leave the safety of the perimeter and balance on a rope of words, like verbal tight-rope walkers without the benefit of a safety net. Slam in its original form is based in any case on improvisation and competition among slammers. Whatever about its origins, slam is a dramatization of the type of metaphorical vivacity we have already seen demonstrated in the dig and verbal sparring. Located somewhere between theatre and poetry, slam is an opportunity for those masters of verbal bling recently arrived from the heart of the African savannah or the shores of the Mediterranean or the forests of Colombia to take the floor.

Its greatest virtue for the purposes of our present discussion is primarily that it overthrows that symbol of linguistic dictatorship represented by the written word, the imperial written word. Slam, like the dig and verbal sparring, legitimizes verbal artistry in an environment that keeps exponents of the written word at a distance: slam is the acrobatics of the spoken word raised to the level of a fine art. In this sense, it may well be reconnecting with certain cultural phenomena that predate the written word, a furious, destructive archaism that relocates the present moment, what is happening right now, at the centre of the world by rejecting the arguments and expertise of organized memory and capitalization. In this way it restores a pleasure in the instantaneous and the volatile to both writers and listeners, qualities which are tending to disappear from creative possibilities. It encounters en route the John Cassavetes, the Antonin Artauds, the Rimbauds, all those who live for the moment. The other not inconsiderable quality is that it confers a public status on artists and acknowledges them by publicizing their work, something that never fails to surprise them.

Slammers are surprised because it doesn’t even occur to them that they might have any particular status as artists, no more than it does to rappers or to street artists for that matter: they slam the way they talk, knowing full well that the insolence lies more in their language than in themselves. They are merely a temporary conduit for it. This language has neither name nor stable syntax but those who are fond of categories like to give it a name, so why not call it verlan? Now the transgressive nature of the language of the banlieues reaches its logical conclusion in this French variation of backslang, since verlan no longer functions as a language as such: it disappears.

The nimble verbal manoeuvres that speakers of verlan**** engage in are well known. They reverse the syllables of their words even in conversations which are otherwise normal from the point of view of sense or of the information they are intended to convey. In its eagerness, verlan often suppresses vowels which would normally appear in black and white, as it were – a and i disappear, o becomes e or rather eu. So the word arabe becomes rebeu, femme becomes meuf and juif becomes feuj. But the word cité retains its colour and is pronounced as téci, while the chinois are noiches. These are just some of the classic verlan terms from the current decade that have had a longer shelf life. But there is no guarantee that we will have the same verlan in five or ten years’ time because it is highly dynamic and changes constantly like a chameleon. It refuses to stay put. It evades all attempts to systematize it or allow interpreters to decode it. Indeed that’s the whole point: the purpose of verlan is precisely to maintain secrecy. Its function is to conceal and also to remain hidden so that, like a resistance fighter used to crossing and re-crossing enemy lines, it is never the same from one location to the next, from one day to the next, or from one speaker to the next. Here, it picks up words from America, there it absorbs peculiar yet stylishly cool turns of phrase; elsewhere, it borrows rules from the neighbouring estate, and yet further afield adopts a secret syntax invented by a bunch of pals. It is the private language of a gang of schoolkids or a group of residents in one or other of the tower blocks, a team of nocturnal street artists or the regulars at a boxing club. In Marseilles, verlan has blended with the local accent and the taste for tall stories; in the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, it is interspersed with old expressions from Parisian slang; in eastern France, curiously enough, it has absorbed a lot of expressions from Arabic. Compared to the French language, verlan does everything the other way round*****.

While French prides itself on its clarity and rigour, verlan seeks opacity and a certain vagueness of interpretation; you could even say that it cultivates ambiguity. While French claims or believes itself to be a stable language, whose jealously guarded formulae have granted it an almost permanent status, verlan is fluid, changeable as an autumn sky. While French tries to establish itself in international affairs in the face of formidable competition, verlan fades as soon as anyone comes close and completely disappears if they try to touch it. While French uses softness and subtlety, the staccato rhythm of verlan assaults the ear. While French derives its respectability from a highly codified written language preserved by dictionaries, guides to Correct Usage and the swords of nonagenarian members of the French Academy, verlan dissolves in an ephemeral spoken language, carried along by the tides of fashion and the mood of the moment. Verlan is not opposed to French, it respectfully pledges its allegiance to it; it penetrates the French language the better to foreground it. It sets French aside, sets itself against it, always ready to drop it at the earliest opportunity so it can pursue its crazy metaphors and revel in the earthy exchanges of the fish market.

In years to come, there will doubtless be some good authors who will be advised by their specialists in communication (with supporting footnotes) to write fiction in verlan – detective novels ideally, in the crime fiction bracket if possible. But be warned: this verlan will be paralysed by the poison of a rock-solid written code. It will be robbed of its opacity and its ephemeral charm or else it will be transformed into another type of secret code. It will be straightened out once it is captured in writing. Just as Villon’s poetry is a distant reflection of the troubadours’ verbal virtuosity, this verlan will be a poor imitation of the abrasive effects of verbal sparring and rap.

But this is not to say that we should be protecting an elusive verlan from denigration by the French language of the Academy, which is itself a fiction. Verlan is one of the many ways of speaking French which is just as valid – no more than that – as the legalese of French administrators and the literary French of secondary teachers, as the slang-studded French of Céline or Jésus la Caille, the neutral French of diplomacy or the vibrantly coloured French from Africa and the French West Indies. As well as their native languages, most of the residents of the suburban estates speak all those variants of the local language, a French language that is increasingly unpredictable, volatile, multi-faceted. Like most people living in France, they know how to adapt their language, which sometimes finds little favour, to other speakers and to their contexts.

It is not the unrealistic accuracy prized by the lovers of pure science that is generated by this linguistic richness but the very opposite of precision, i.e. misunderstanding. In the context of a linguistic diversity which has been restored as if to reverse the old Babelian myth, it is not about sanctioning those who may have broken some taboo decreed for some unknown reason by a deity who has since lost his mind or his nerve (which was never his problem before). It is in fact the contrary: the same deity, proud of mankind’s creative daring, pays tribute to humanity by giving it linguistic diversity, the occasion for misunderstanding and a marvellous device for human encounter. For this ancient deity knows very well that it is misunderstanding that prompts people to draw closer to one another, that arouses their curiosity and fuels their desires to the point of madness, and that sparks their creative frustration. Misunderstanding is what makes mankind an inventive and fragile, yet comical and ridiculous species. While the contemporary political powers are disintegrating under the pressure of overblown visions of human unity, tongues are being loosened – literally – and being freed by their now powerless censors. They are rediscovering their undefined malleability in the interstitial space of the run-down, neglected banlieues. Here, distanced from the posturings of certain imperial languages chasing recognition within international organizations and in school textbooks, other forms of linguistic expression are surrendering to the delights of interpretative doubt, yielding to the sirens of misunderstanding. In the suburban estates, the multiplicity fostered by a real enjoyment of diversity can be seen at work; it is here that misunderstanding provides a framework for people to approach one another and strangeness becomes the basis for them to get to know one another.

* Tr’s Note: In 1539, the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts which prescribed French as the official language was signed by Francois I.

** Tr’s Note: slogan from May 68 challenging the arbitrary authority of French orthographic conventions.

*** Tr’s Note: only used in Ireland to denote this type of robust banter; to ‘slag someone off’ means to denigrate them.

**** Tr’s Note: term derived from vers-l’en, where the syllables of the word l’envers are reversed.

***** Tr’s Note: à l’envers i.e. the other way round, the opposite of what is the norm.

Marc Hatzfeld


Mary O’Neill (translation)


other languages

Babblings from France Babils de France