On

On: this little word has several functions and it is important to know them. If you open a grammar book, it will tell you that on is an indefinite pronoun that can be translated as “one”, “you”, “they”, “someone”.

On peut pas fumer ici.
You can’t smoke here.

Colloquially, it also means “we”. Nous, the official first-person plural pronoun, is almost never used in colloquial French. Note that the verb following on conjugates like the third person singular (il). You can forget the normal first-person conjugation (nous faisons, nous sommes → on fait, on est). (Well, don’t forget it, but you will not need it in colloquial conversations.)

On fait quoi ce soir ?
What shall we do tonight?

Note that this is only true when on/nous is the subject: as an object, nous is still used (e.g. pour nous, pour on is not correct).

Tu sais ce qu’ils nous ont dit ?
Do you know what they told us?

The reflexive pronoun, however, is se.

On se connaît ?
Do we know each other?

In this sentence, on nous connaît would mean “someone/they know us”.

Listen to the examples:

Verlan

Today, we are going to talk about a big topic: verlan. It is a form of slang that basically consists in inverting the syllables of a word. The word verlan itself comes from the inversion of l’envers, “the inverse”.

Verlan is used by young people (I can’t imagine an old person speaking like this), but not all young people. For example, I seldom use verlan unless I’m being ironic. Older people usually have difficulties understanding it (except some words that have become well-known), but you are very likely to hear verlan among young people.

As I said, the basic principe of verlan is inverting the syllables of a word. Bizarre (“weird”) consists of two syllables: bi-zar (verlan is about pronunciation, not spelling), so its verlan version is zarbi.

When the original word ends in a consonant, eu or e is often inserted, for example in lourdrelou (“heavy” or “annoying”).

The difficulty comes from the fact that sounds are often deleted before or after the inversion:

  • Rigoler (“to laugh”) becomes golri: the ending disappear before the inversion.
  • Very often, the end of the word is deleted after the inversion: femme (“woman”, actually pronounced [fam]) becomes meuf.

Usually, verlan words are not created on the fly, but belong to a fixed set of words. Here are a few common verlan words you might hear. Because verlan is usually spoken and not written, the spelling of these words may vary.

Usual French Verlan English
Arabe Beur* Arab
bête teubé silly
bizarre zarbi weird
cher reuch expensive
choper pécho to catch
cité téci usually poor housing estate
défoncé foncedé high
énervé vénère** irritated
femme meuf woman
fête teuf party
flic keuf cop
juif feuj Jew
louche chelou shifty, shady
lourd relou annoying
mec keum dude
merci cimer thank you
mère reum mother
métro tromé metro
père reup father
rigoler golri to laugh

* Yes, beur sounds exactly like beurre, which means “butter”, so don’t be surprised if you think you hear someone talking about butter in a context where it makes no sense.
** Don’t get vénère mixed up with vénéré, which means “worshipped”!

Listen to these words:

Some verlan words have become widespead, and may even be heard from people who don’t usually speak in verlan:

  • Meuf doesn’t exactly have the same meaning as femme: ma femme means “my wife” but ma meuf means “my girlfriend”.
  • Beur has become widely used to describe people of North African descent. It even has a femininte version, beurette.
  • A popular 1984 comedy film is called Les Ripoux. Ripou comes from pourri (“rotten”) and, in this case, refers to corrupt policemen.
  • I just learned that the stage name of the Belgian singer Stromae is verlan for maestro.

Some young people have even begun to “re-verlanize” some words: instead of meuf and beur, you may hear feumeu and reubeu!

I also have to talk about grammar. You may have noticed that verlan words include some verbs, such as pécho. This is a problem, because such a verb is impossible to conjugate. So these words are only used as the infinitive, the present tense and the past participle:

  • Je pécho: “I catch”,
  • J’ai pécho: “I caught” (past participle),
  • Je vais pécho: “I’m gonna catch” (the future tense is impossible, so aller + infinitive can be used instead),
  • J’étais en train de pécho: “I was catching” (the construction être en train de + infinitive can replace the imperfect in some contexts).

Common contractions in spoken French

Colloquial language doesn’t only mean colloquial words: speech registers also affect the pronunciation and the grammar of a language. These topics are maybe less fun and more complicated, but they are nonetheless important to understand colloquial French. So today we are going to talk about pronunciation.

People who don’t speak French or who are learning it often say that they have trouble understanding where words begin and end when they hear spoken French. They are right, because groups of words are usually pronounced as a single word. In addition, some sounds that are pronounced in careful speech are dropped in the colloquial language.

You probably already know about elision: words such as je, de, le became j’, d’, l’ in front of vowels (for example l’ami, “the friend”; le ami is not correct). But in spoken French, it happens in front of consonants too. The same short e sound (called by grammar books e caduc, e muet or schwa) often disappears in the middle of a word: app’ler (appeler, “to call”), ach’ter (acheter, “to buy”), p’tit (petit, “small”)… (They are usually not spelled this way, the apostrophe is only here to show you what sound has been dropped).

Je n’ai pas le temps de venir chez toi, je dois acheter de la nourriture. (Formal French)
J’ai pas l’temps d’venir chez toi, j’dois achter d’la nourriture. (Colloquial French)
I don’t have time to come to your place, I have to buy food.

(Note that je n’ai pas became j’ai pas. Ne/n’ usually disappears in spoken French, I will talk about it in another article.)

These contractions are not obligatory, but still very common. French people would pronounce all of these e‘s only if they wanted to speak especially clearly, for instance to repeat the sentence because the other person didn’t hear it the first time, or when reading poetry.

These contractions are not always possible: je me fais (“I do to myself”), for example, will be pronounced as j’me fais or je m’fais, but not j’m’fais because it would be really difficult to pronounce. Le temps, in my previous example, can be pronounced as l’temps because there is a word ending in a vowel before it (so pas le temps is not difficult to pronounce: “paltemps“), but at the beginning of a sentence this would not be possible (beginning a sentence with [lt] is really difficult).

Two especially common contractions are chuis and chais (not usually spelled that way, though): “I am” and “I know”. J’suis and j’sais are possible too, but the contractions appeared because they are easier to pronounce than words beginning with js. Chais is mostly used in the negative form, chais pas, with can be translated as “I dunno”.

Another thing you should know is that the pronoun tu, in colloquial French, becomes t’ in front of a vowel. Elision normally happens only with e; this is an exception. However, unlike normal elision, it does not happen in front of a consonant in colloquial speech (or very rarely): the tu in tu viens is always pronounced as it is written; t’viens is not possible (well, maybe sometimes in very colloquial and lazy speech, but it’s not that common).

Be careful: because of this, in colloquial speech, t’ can stand either for tu or te. But it is always clear from the context (I think I have never heard an ambiguous case where I didn’t know if t’ meant tu or te).

— Où t’as mis les clés ?
Chais pas, cherche.
— Where did you put the keys?
— I dunno, look.

Finally, the pronoun il is usually pronounced only as i, unless it is followed by a vowel, in this case it is pronounced as it is written. The l of ils is also dropped, therefore it is pronounced as i before a consonant and iz (because of liaison) before a vowel.

Il [il] a dit qu’il [i] voulait pas venir.
He said he didn’t want to come.

Ils [iz] ont dit qu’ils [i] voulaient pas venir.
They said they didn’t want to come.

Listen to the examples: