Language of the suburbs

Je viens de la banlieue: I come from the suburbs.

In this song French slammer Grand Corps Malade celebrates his roots and the parisian suburbs.

If we take Paris, a banlieue is technically any council that surrounds the city within the region of Ile de France. However banlieue has a rougher connotation to it and is often used in everyday language to refer to poorer suburbs. The ones that house the majority of Paris’, mostly muslim, migrant population. It has in a way become synonymous of ‘ghetto’.

Funny how in England or the US, a suburb evokes precisely the opposite: a leafy place inhabited mainly by white affluent families. But in France, although for example, Neuilly-sur-Seine is officially a banlieue, this wealthy council which gave former president Nicolas Sarkozy his first political role as mayor, doesn’t quite compare to the department of Seine Saint Denis, also called 9-3 (say neuf trois), after its post code.

Speaking of Sarkozy…after watching his interview from last Sunday- yes, he is preparing a ‘come-back’ as we say in French- I noticed that his new favourite expression/question seems to be ‘est-ce que vous me prêtez deux neurones d’intelligence? Which I’d translate roughly as ‘Will you afford me two neurons of intelligence?’. Does he mean ‘do you think I’m an idiot’? or “Will you agree that I’m intelligent’? Who knows…
In this song Grand Corps Malade offers a nuanced and humane vision of the suburbs. Quite different from, say, Sarkozy’s…Him again. Well, there is actually quite an important link between the banlieues, Sarkozy and language.

And speaking of language… it is actually one of the things that Grand Corps Malade believes the banlieues can be proud of.

Lyrics at 0.43:
Je viens de là où le langage est en permanente évolution
Verlan, rebeu, argot, gros processus de création
Chez nous, les chercheurs, les linguistes viennent prendre des rendez-vous
On n’a pas tout le temps le même dictionnaire mais on a plus de mots que vous

Je viens de là où les jeunes ont tous une maîtrise de vannes
Un D.E.A. de chambrettes, une répartie jamais en panne
Intelligence de la rue, de la démerde ou du quotidien
Appelle ça comme tu veux mais pour nous carotter, tiens-toi bien
On jure sur la tête de sa mère à l’âge de neuf ans
On a l’insulte facile mais un vocabulaire innovant


  • Verlan: Jargon of the suburbs obtained by pronouncing certain words back to front. If you take the expression à ‘l’envers’ which means ‘back to front’ and you split it in two ‘l’en- vers’ and then reverse the order of the syllables…you get ‘vers-l’en’. Verlan.
  • Rebeu: verlan of ‘beurre’ which means ‘butter’ but is used disparagingly to designate ‘arabs’. In its ‘verlan’ form the word is not negative or discriminatory anymore.
  • Argot: slang
  • Gros processus: big process
  • Une maîtrise: a master diploma
  • Vannes: colloquial for digs, teasing remarks. Vanner: to tease
  • D.E.A.: a type of diploma
  • Chambrettes: (slang) for digs. Chambrer: to tease
  • Répartie: The fact of answering back. English uses the word but has changed the spelling to ‘repartee’ to get the same sound.
  • La démerde: (vulgar) The fact of managing. Getting by. Litterally: getting yourself out of the shit.
  • Carotter: (slang) to steal