The French Argot

In a way argot is simply the French for slang; however, the reason we are going to stick to this term even in English is not merely the fact that this paper deals with French slang but also that from a certain point of view argot turns out to be closer to what the English call cant while the French language seems to have quite a few terms that could be translated by slang, such as argot commun, argots des métiers, langage des jeunes or langue des cités.

The earliest argot terms we know about are several centuries older then the first written appearance of the word argot in the 17th century. At that time argot meant the community of criminals and beggars and not their secret language referred to as jargon. Argot takes the meaning of secret language of the underworld by the end of the 17th century and this definition will remain unchanged until the end of the 19th century.

In the first half of the 20th century linguists such as DAUZAT started to regard some mainly professional varieties too as argot and noticed the emergence of argot terms in the non-standard varieties of the lower classes.

In the 1950s GUIRAUD described the evolution of argot from the secret language of the underworld to a social variety of language consisting of a special vocabulary that enables its users to shaw that they are different from most speakers and belong to a given group or community.

The term argot commun first used by FRANÇOIS-GEIGER refers to lexical items on their way from argot to colloquial speech and seems to be quite close to slang as the latter has been characterized by PARTRIDGE. Terms belonging to this category make up a "common stock of argot" shared by large numbers of speakers.

French "argotologists" consider la fonction crypto-ludique the main characteristic of argot: that is, varieties of this type tend to achieve simultaneously the goals of being secret and original, special words are used not only to hide the meaning but also for the fun of the thing. However, the notion of fonction connivencielle is of particular importance if we want to understand the nature of modern argots: instead of hiding the meaning it is often more important to show that we belong together while others are left out of our world.

These functions can help the linguist to distinguish argot from non-standard social varieties, colloquial speech or jargon, the latter being characterized by the will to communicate efficiently. It is also important to point out that argot -according to its modern definition- cannot be considered the property of one given social layer or class, and unlike non-standard varieties such as la langue populaire, does not have a particular phonetic or syntactic system. It consists mainly of a special vocabulary, even though syntactic change can sometimes give birth to new argot terms. In comparison with the lexicon of a given language argot shows thematic poverty and a richness in synonyms at the same time.

The relationship between argot and standard language is bidirectional: standard language or non-standard varieties provide new items to be transformed by argot, while terms originating in argot often end up in everyday speech.

Argot vocabulary usually results from the semantic or formal transformation of lexical items borrowed from standard or non-standard varieties of a given language. It is either the meaning of an apparently everyday word that is altered or the original shape of the old item is hidden by the transformation of its form. An extreme variety of the second type are the socalled code-languages widespread in the history of French argot: the javanais, the largonji, the loucherbem or today's verlan used mostly by teenagers.

French argot has also borrowed a considerable number of terms from foreign languages such as English, Italian or Arabic.

Some Gipsy terms constitute an interesting link between French argot and Hungarian slang.

Inspite of certain particularities, the linguistic and extralinguistic factors that characterize French argot have a lot in common with those characterizing for instance Hungarian slang, which underlines the importance of the study of slang universals.