LCL Lecture: Valérie Saugera and the Secret Language of Butchers

On February 21st, Professor Valérie Saugera described her current research on “Louchébem,” a secret language spoken by Parisian butchers. Saugera is a contact linguist who has published widely on anglicisms in the French language. In this new project she marries linguistics and anthropological research to explore a language that many considered dead. Saugera’s research shows that it is very much alive and used still used by a significant number of butchers in Paris.

She first heard about Louchébem over 10 years ago, while doing her PhD at Indiana University. She describes Louchébem as a “means of disguising vocabulary.” Not quite qualifying as a wholesale language, but more than just vocabulary, Louchébem turns out to be a language system. Speakers replace the first consonant in a French word with the letter “L”, move the original consonant to the end, and add a complex list of suffixes to the end. Thus the word for “boucher” (butcher in English) turns into “Louchébem.”  In her lecture, Saugera focused primarily on the suffixes. What she seeks to understand is the degree to which the suffixes of Louchébem are predictive. This will in turn tell us how much Louchebem operates as a language.

We know that Louchébem was already used among butchers in the 13th century and is the first language used by a guild. Evidence of Louchébem has been recorded in various forms ever since, but it use seems to have seriously declined during the Mad Cow Disease crisis of 1991. Studying what is essentially an oral practice, “means accepting gaps in the data and unanswered questions,” Saugera says. The “literature is sparse… There is a plethora of urban myth and tales,” she adds. Only two scholarly articles exist on the topic, but via a wide sample of interviews, Saugera has been able to uncover many details about this supposedly dead language.

Saugera has interviewed 153 butchers and identified 16 suffixes. What is most fascinating is that half of the butchers she interviewed do not know really understand the grammar of Louchébem word formation, they have simply memorized words – a finding that she describes as the “most surprising” thus far. She has also learned from the interviews that, because butchers in France are traditionally male, female family members have usually only a passing knowledge of it. That is, they can often understand it, but do not speak it.

Butchery is a declining industry due to scandals with slaughterhouses, the taxation on meat, and the rise of vegetarianism/veganism. However, Saugera noted that Louchébem has assumed surprising new forms, for instance, in email addresses. The next question Saugera will pose in her ongoing research concerns the consequences of losing a language like Louchébem and why it is crucial to save these “micro-languages”. According to one of her interviewees, “France is the country of conversation, of chit chat… in some ways the practice of Louchébem is a miracle of its own”.

By Claire Boers