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 has expertise in lexical borrowing and has published widely on Anglicisms in the French language. In this new project she marries linguistic and ethnographic research to explore a trade argot that many considered dead. Saugera’s research shows that it is still alive and used by a significant number of butchers in Paris.

Saugera first heard about Louchébem over ten years ago in a sociolinguistics class, while doing her Ph.D. She describes Louchébem as a “means of disguising words from the common language so as not to be understood by customers.” It relies on a code: speakers replace the first consonant in a French word with the letter “L”, move the original consonant to the end, and attach one of ten suffixes to it. Thus, when you apply this rule to the word boucher (‘butcher’), it produces the form Louchébem.  In her lecture, Saugera focused primarily on the linguistic mechanics of Louchébem and the reasons for using it in butcher shops today.

We know that Louchébem emerged in the second part of the nineteenth century in one of the oldest guilds in France; the butchers organized themselves into a guild as early as the eleventh century. 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 myths and tales,” she adds. Only a few articles are available on the topic, but via a wide corpus of interviews, Saugera has been able to uncover many details about this supposedly dead argot.

Saugera has interviewed 153 Louchébem speakers in their traditional butcher shops. What is most fascinating is that some of the butchers she interviewed do not know how Louchébem is formed, they have simply acquired 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 usually have only a passive knowledge of it; that is, they can often understand it, but do not speak it.

Butchery is a declining industry due to the rise of vegetarianism/veganism, competition of halal butcher shops, scandals with slaughterhouses, among many reasons. Therefore, another question Saugera will pose in her ongoing research concerns the consequences of losing a trade argot like Louchébem and why it is crucial to save these “micro-languages”. According to one of her interviewees, “… in some ways the practice of Louchébem is a miracle of its own”.

by Clare Boers