Researching French and French-speaking Rap

One of our current PhD students, Martin Verbeke, is examining French and French-speaking rap in his PhD thesis, triggered by an observation from his time as a French linguistics student at the University of Antwerp (Belgium): “Many of my foreign friends who could otherwise speak and understand French very well would struggle a lot to decipher lyrics from French rap artists. This led to my desire to conduct a thorough analysis of these problematic words. Initially, my approach to this sociolinguistic question was very lexicographic: I analysed lyrics to categorise words and study their meaning, use and etymology. The end result was a very complete description of the language used by French rappers but I could feel that more could be done with this modern problematic.”

Martin’s PhD seeks to take this analysis much further: “In my PhD, I focus on non-standard language use in selected-francophone rap tracks (i.e. from French and French-speaking Belgian rappers). By non-standard, I mean any type of words that belong to lower registers of language, such as abbreviations, colloquial and vulgar words, slang, foreign borrowings, verlan (a type of slang formed by switching the order of syllables) or any combination of these categories of words. Quickly, the focus of the analysis has moved from what and how to why. The use of such non-standard language is certainly prevalent in French rap but it also varies considerably from one song to the next, even when analysing only one album from a single artist. As a result, trying to understand the reasons why such fluctuation exists has become the focal point of my research.

In order to enable such analysis, a wide corpus is necessary. What is more, this corpus must illustrate a variety of potential influences like time, ethnic and geographic origins, social class, gender and rap music style. Eventually, the corpus was divided in four main sections, which will end up being four different chapters in the thesis. The diachronic section looks at the influence of time by focusing on three years, 1991, 2001 and 2011. This section is divided in two: the first part looks at successive generations of rappers and the second at the influence of time across one artist’s career. The diatopic section, focusing on all possible geographic influences, has three parts and studies the influence of ‘origins’ (French, Algerian and Senegalese), of cities (Marseille, Paris and Brussels) and of departments (Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne). The section on gender only contains tracks from female rappers but these are compared to the rest of the corpus which is male-dominated (as is French rap in general). The last diaphasic section investigates the influence of three different famous rap styles: poetical, ego trip and political.”

Black Barbie
Black Barbie

Alongside in-depth textual analysis, Martin has carried out a number of interviews with leading French and Belgian rappers including Shurik’n, El Matador, Disiz, Starflam, Scylla, Black Barbie and many more. “These artists were asked a series of questions regarding their own use of non-standard language as well as their general perception of the rap movement. The results from these interviews will be paired with the statistical results from the linguistic analysis and targeted literature review for all four sections of the corpus to create a thorough description and interpretation of the linguistic variation observed in the French rap movement. As I write this blog post, I have already completed my first four chapters: only the influence of rap styles still needs to be analysed. For example, I found that non standard language use has been increasing over time or that no real difference exists between male and female rappers. However, all influences impact rap tracks simultaneously and no clear picture will be formed before the four sections of the corpus are unpacked. So I invite you to keep a close eye to my research as my investigations are coming to an end.”

We wish Martin all the best for the rest of the thesis and look forward to reading the final results!